How does growing up bilingual improve cognition?

Raising your children with more than one language will not only help their language skills - many advantages also exist for their cognitive development throughout life.

Helen Geyer
Updated on
February 7, 2021
10 min read

Growing up bilingual

Astoundingly, embryos already start perceiving and get used to the melody of the mother's language when in the womb. After birth, they tend to cry with a rising or falling intonation, fitting the language they had perceived before - so it is never too early to start thinking about which language to raise your child with. One beautiful thing about the brain is that it is never too late to learn something new. However, starting early is best, as for all abilities.

Already at around 8 months, monolingual babies do not tend to realise that languages have been switched when they see someone speaking in silent videos. Only bilingual babies seem to keep that ability, which means that monolinguals loose this even earlier than 8 months into their lives. It is not known exactly when this happens, but definitely provides an argument that starting the earliest is best.

You might have heard that children growing up with multiple languages sometimes tend to switch between them. The reason for this is that when bilinguals think of a word, the brain actually always activates it in both languages. This is called cognitive control. When kids are younger, they are still learning to focus on the right word in the desired language. Therefore, it can falsely seem as if they do not know the word in the other language. However, when they get older, this gives them an advantage in switching between languages, as well as at multitasking in general.

Note: Concerning the cognitive advantages of growing up bilingually, it matters most t h a t a second language is aquired, and not as much which one it is precisely.)

What happens in later adulthood?

The bilingual advantages do not stop there - even at an older age, they retain certain capacities for longer than monolinguals. Whereas advanced age usually does mean loss of cognitive abilities, bilinguals are better protected against their steady decline, called "cognitive reserve".

This can even be applied to dementia - a disease that immensely impacts the lives of the affected elderly and their loved ones. Being bilingual tends to delay the onset of its symptoms by about 3 to 5 years, thus retaining a better quality of life for much longer.

Do bilinguals "think differently"?

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher

Speaking another language widens your horizon, creates opportunities and can bring a more differentiated view of the world with it. But does it also shape the way you think?

Concerning the brain, language areas in both hemispheres tend to be more activated in bilinguals - whereas in monolinguals, the focus is more on the right hemisphere. This could be because when bilinguals think of a word, the brain looks for it in both languages at the same time which means that it takes more effort to speak, but also that bilinguals' brains have an amazingly well-trained capacity to do this.

Whereas studies on the brain give interesting insights as to how humans think, others compared mono- and bilinguals' performance in everyday-life tasks. In one study, for example, participants had to judge economical risks in a game. Bilinguals were incited to consider their options in their second language - and what the researchers found might be surprising: The participants made the most economically useful decisions in the languages they were less fluent in! Possibly, it was because they considered their options more precisely, because doing this in your second language is always more difficult than in your mother tongue. So next time you're thinking about investing your money in something, you could try to intentionally change the language you're thinking in. Who knows, maybe you'll earn more like this?

Note: On all these topics, a lot of research is currently ongoing, as many questions are still unanswered or not entirely understood.

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Helen Geyer

Polyglo's content manager with a background in bilingualism and linguistics. She ensures that you get access to the most up-to-date info for raising bilingual children.‍

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