Are Bilingual People Smarter?

In some ways, sure it does help to be bilingual. Knowing two languages by itself represents a big advantage.

Of course, being bilingual will help you be more marketable and, often, necessary depending on where and with whom you work. Also, it helps you at learning additional languages and detecting language sounds, even when you’re very young.

Yet, there is controversy on this subject. There are studies (York University in Toronto) that suggested that bilingualism improves “executive function.” Executive function relates to a range of abilities such as paying attention, inhibiting impulses, and working memory. This latter has to do with being able to perform mental operations such as being able to repeat back phone numbers.

However, a possible issue with this conclusion regarding improved executive functions on bilingual people is that the required abilities to learn a language may be different.  Specifically, being bilingual requires the ability to to learn the two languages, with the right phonetics and sounds, and being able to switch back and forth between languages.

It might help to look at how being bilingual may change brain organization. For example, some studies show that bilingual children showed a significant advantage in some area, such as working memory, but not on others. Being able to manage different languages requires some level of coordination. In this area, bilingual children performed differently.

Managing multiple languages might be most related to that kind of coordination. So Dr. Chun and colleagues looked at connections across the whole brain. They found that those were consistently different areas of the brain being used for bilingual and monolingual children.

Bilingualism also brings up the question of cognitive aging and if there is an advantage. A popular view is that over the course of a lifetime, a bilingual’s two languages constantly interact and to manage the competing of the languages.  A bilingual’s executive function system, and the brain structures associated with it, will develop in ways that differ from a monolingual who faces no such pressures. Thus, as we age and experience age-related cognitive decline, the bilingual brain may be more resistant to the neurodegeneration that occurs. This is referred to as cognitive reserve, but the way that this works is not agreed upon.

One possibility is that brain structures stay healthier because they are more resistant to neurodegeneration. Another possibility is that when certain structures or connections between brain regions are damaged and disrupted, the bilingual brain is able to compensate by making use of alternative intact pathways. The challenge facing any theory seeking to reconcile these findings is that there exists evidence for each of these seemingly incompatible views.

Retrospective studies that involve examination of medical records, etc. support the claim that bilingualism may delay the incidence of dementia.

Studies that examine structural changes in the brain (neuroplasticity) resulting from long-term bilingual language use present results that are particularly compelling. Bilingualism unquestionably changes both gray and white matter in numerous brain structures distributed across a wide network, and many of these structures are associated with executive functions.

As studies continue to address this, the controversy over the possible benefits of being bilingual continue. What do you think?

Regardless of bilingualism, communicating in your main, preferred language is important. This is even more relevant when accessing psychological services. Fortunately, we provide services in English and/or Spanish. Hopefully, this can facilitate connecting and developing rapport. Please call for any help or services that you might need.