If you’re thinking about taking up a new hobby, try learning a new language, as it turns out that knowing more than one language can seriously boost your brain power. And if you already speak more than one language, know that you’re in luck, as bilingualism (or multilingualism) comes with quite a few fascinating cognitive benefits. For instance, research shows that speaking two or more languages improves your concentration, makes you better at problem-solving, and can even protect you from cognitive decline.
There are 5 main cognitive benefits of knowing more than one language:
One of the most outstanding benefits of speaking more than one language is the ability to retain a young brain and delay cognitive decline. More specifically, research shows that bilinguals are less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and they have a better chance of recovering after a stroke.
A Canadian study showed that, on average, bilinguals are diagnosed with dementia 3-4 years later than monolinguals, and an Italian study found that Alzheimer’s patients who are bilingual are, on average, 5 years older than their monolingual counterparts.
So, much like engaging in other cognitively-challenging activities like solving crossword puzzles or practicing musical instruments, knowing a second language can train your brain to be more resilient to adverse age-related changes.
If maintaining focus and concentrating deeply on an important task can sometimes prove to be problematic, learning a new language could be helpful at training that skill. This is because people who know two and more languages have a more highly developed executive functioning, which involves the ability to focus on the important bits and ignore the unimportant ones.
Brain imaging studies have shown that bilinguals have a more active and highly-developed dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is one of the areas in the front part of the brain responsible both for organizing language and executive function. So, by exercising your language skills, you’re actually improving your ability to concentrate because these two abilities share the same brain area.
If you ever doubt your decisions and fear you might be biased against or towards a certain issue, try talking, reading or thinking about it in a different language to perceive it from a more rational and objective perspective. This exercise is useful, as there is research suggesting that people tend to think about a specific moral issue more objectively and less emotionally if they do so in a foreign language rather than their native one.
The authors theorize that this may be the case because some words have certain emotional connotations that trigger an emotional reaction, but if we think about the same issue in a foreign language, we lose this extra emotional layer and can judge the same issue more objectively.
To manage more than one task at the same time, it’s necessary for a person to switch easily from one task to another and to be able to ignore everything irrelevant to the tasks at hand. Now, it turns out that when speaking, bilinguals multitask constantly, as they always have to choose a word or phrase in the language they’re speaking in at the time of speech and not the other one they know.
By constantly juggling between languages, bilinguals actually train their multitasking abilities without even knowing it, and so they are, on average, much better than their monolingual counterparts at multitasking.
Getting the hang of a challenging task and finding new and creative ways to solve it requires immense mental strength, and it’s a skill that requires constant practice. Experiments have shown time and time that bilinguals are better at solving different types of challenging tasks because they are better at analyzing and have a superior working memory (a skill that allows you to take several things into account simultaneously when solving a problem).
Brain imaging studies also support this finding, pointing out that bilinguals aren’t simply better at different problem-solving tasks, but their brains work more efficiently when solving these tasks as well. And while we don't really know why learning a new language helps us think more clearly and organize our thoughts better, it's certain that knowing a second language is more useful to us than we might think.