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The Multifaceted Brain

An In-depth Investigation of How Bilingualism Affects the Brain


Photo by on Aedrian Salazar Unsplash


Mastering a second language is hard. But when you do it, it means a lot more than just easier traveling, watching movies without subtitles and making international friendships. Studies from 2022 estimate that around 43% of people across the world are bilingual and 17% are multilingual, suggesting that over half of the world population can speak multiple languages. Acquiring more than one language occurs in a variety of circumstances, such as growing up under parents who speak a different language, immigrating to a new country and studying over many years.


“When I was in second grade going up to third grade, I moved from Puerto Rico to New York and slowly started learning English by hearing my surroundings and being a part of English as a second language program,” sophomore Ana Cebollero said. “[One of the biggest benefits of being bilingual is] definitely being able to communicate with a lot more people. Spanish is one of the biggest languages in the world, so if you can speak both English and Spanish, you will always find someone [to talk to] anywhere you go.”


Even though a lot of people appreciate cultural connections they build from bilingualism, not many realize how bilingualism benefits their brains. Until the first half of the 20th century, experts believed that bilingualism damaged children’s intellectual abilities and verbal development. Over time, however, studies revealed that the bilingual brain has a greater advantage than the monolingual one. When humans hear a word, they normally do not hear the entire word at once; rather, they hear parts of the pronunciation and try to guess the word before it is completed. For bilingual people, this process happens in two different languages. Since multiple languages are constantly competing in the brain, bilingual people often experience difficulties with tasks related to language like recalling a specific vocabulary even though they remember details about it. In order to minimize the disadvantage, the bilingual brain requires a good balance between two languages, and as an individual repeatedly engages in this practice, the brain strengthens its executive functions.


“[Knowing multiple languages] messes up the thought process because usually when I’m thinking, I’m thinking in my [native] language, not in English,” junior Rajan Jinadra said. “And sometimes I’m thinking in English, but then I’m talking to my dad or mom. Sometimes it’s confusing, but once you get into way too much practice and get used to it, I don’t think there’s much confusion.”


Although the influence of enhanced brain functions is not visible in daily situations, the benefits of speaking multiple languages allow bilingual people to perform certain tasks better than monolingual people. One of the examples is shown in the Stroop task, an experiment in which participants have to name the color of a word that does not match its actual color. For example, if the word “red” is in the color blue, participants have to say “blue,” even though what they perceive is red. Compared to monolingual people, bilingual people are generally much better at this task since they are already used to ignoring unnecessary information, proving that they have better attention and conflict management skills when faced with two contradictory perceptions. In addition, even if an individual is not perfectly bilingual, speaking two languages provides a deeper understanding of how language works. This helps the individual decode texts more easily, improving both reading and writing skills. 


“Chinese is a really good language that can organize your thoughts clearly, so sometimes when I start modeling [a piece of writing], I use Chinese to organize and translate it back into English, so it gives me the benefit for structured essays, dialogues or conversations,” sophomore JonJon She said. “There are a lot of Chinese idioms that just don’t have good direct translation [in English], but you can try to get close to it through your understanding in both languages, and that does help me.”


Although achieving a second language is challenging, learning a new language for the third time is a lot easier than people think. Regardless of the number of languages an individual can speak, the use of any language relies on the same parts of the brain; the key difference is that the first language is the most advanced and therefore can be used automatically. Moreover, the enhanced executive functions help bilingual people focus and absorb new information without being distracted from languages that they already know. This benefit becomes more prominent when an individual’s third language has the same root as their first or second language.


“There are certain patterns that I could copy because French and Spanish are both Roman languages with a Latin base,” Spanish teacher Heather Bas said. “There were a lot of similarities, so I picked up some things pretty quickly.”


The cognitive benefits of bilingualism create greater learning opportunities, but the brain’s technical skills are not the only factors that make this happen. Learning a new language widens an individual’s perspective by offering a profound experience of new cultures and ideas. For example, Russian speakers identify shades of blue faster than English speakers, Japanese speakers are more likely to distinguish objects by substance rather than shape and Korean speakers use distinct words to describe different types of motion events. For bilingual people, their perspectives often change depending on which one is more dominant at the time. As a result, they hold more diverse interpretations and bigger space for creativity.


“When you learn a language, you also learn the world view that comes attached with that language, so it makes you more open-minded and able to see and think in different perspectives,” senior Teresa Morgado said. “[It allows you to] be able to see multiple viewpoints on one issue and take more factors into account than just looking at things from one lens.”

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Andy Poll

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