Are Bilingual Speakers Smarter?

It is common for people who are born in former colonies or in melting pot societies to speak two or more languages. In Uganda, a former British colony, it isn’t unusual to find people who can fluently speak both Swahili and English, while in the Philippines, a World War II commonwealth of the United States, almost all people in the urban areas can speak English and Filipino eloquently.

In places that have rich ethnic diversities like the United States and United Kingdom, it is very common to meet people who can speak two or more languages. As much as 1.38 million Americans — most of them residing in North Dakota — can speak fluent German, while Spanish is the primary or secondary language of at least 45 million Americans across the United States.

Scientists have been long intrigued by the psychological aspects of bilingualism and how it affects general mental tasks and functions. Some have speculated that bilingual people are smarter in basic mental aspects such as multi-tasking than their monolingual counterparts. Psychologists from Northwestern University conducted a study to find answers.

Their study, published in last week’s edition of the science journal Brain and Language, involved an intensive analyses of brain scans of both one-language and bilingual speakers. Researchers discovered that people who spoke a single language had more difficulty focusing on a word in their language, while two-language speakers had a relatively easier time juggling and activating words from both their languages and removing irrelevant information from their pool of details. Viorica Marian, lead author of the study, likened the mental process of bilingual speakers to a “stop light.”

“Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need.”

Although this doesn’t conclude that bilingual speakers are actually smarter than people who spoke just a single language, the research identifies the latent advantages of being able to speak two languages. Live Science reports about “bilingual advantage,” which is the ability to better filter out important information from unimportant detail.

Marian is a multilingual speaker herself, speaking Romanian and Russian, with English as her third language. She encourages people to start learning another language, saying it’s never too late to pick up a second language. There are many institutes and websites that offer free language courses, such as the iPad Academy and Duolingo.

[Image from Jennifer Woodard Maderazo/Flickr]