How Being Bilingual Boosts Brain Power

How Being Bilingual Boosts Brain Power

As any doctor can tell you, regular workouts keep your bones sturdy and your muscles strong. Your brain and your biceps have something in common: Your mind also benefits from regular workouts, albeit of a different sort. Brain training boosts your mental acuity and problem-solving skills. Playing word games and solving puzzles are popular ways of exercising your brain, but new research suggests that language schools may be your best bet for brain-building.

The Study

If you have trouble concentrating, learning a new language could improve your mental focus. Researchers at Northwestern University studied a group of 48 students, 23 of whom were fully bilingual, to see how their brains responded to various sound stimuli. When listening to speech sounds in a quiet environment, all of the students’ brains showed similar brain activity. However, when scientists amplified background noise to observe how well the listeners could discern speech sounds from background noise, the bilingual students showed a much better capacity to tune out the clutter and focus on the speech.

The Benefits

Being bilingual may also protect you against dementia as you age, according to researchers. Scientists have long known that your brain becomes less susceptible to the memory loss and impaired logical faculties of dementia when you stay mentally active. Playing a musical instrument, solving mental puzzles and doing arithmetic help keep you sharp. Learning another language is one of the most effective ways to retain your intellectual faculties because it draws on so many important mental skills such as memory retrieval, translation and logical thinking.

Unlike puzzles and mental training exercises, speaking another language automatically gives your brain a workout. Because you don’t need to make a special effort to enhance your brain power, becoming bilingual sharpens your mental faculties every time you write or speak in your new language. Even hearing another language initiates a burst of mental activity as your brain works to process it. Learning any new skill keeps your brain in good shape, but even after you’ve become fluently bilingual, the learning continues. Increasing your vocabulary and understanding more of the subtleties of syntax is a pleasure that you’ll enjoy every time you read a novel or watch a television show in your new language.

Thought shapes language, but language also shapes thought. When you become fully bilingual, you broaden your intellect to encompass nuances of meaning that your native tongue may have trouble expressing. English often appropriates these words as part of itself, but you’ll only gain a full appreciation of the perspectives another language gives you when you become fluent in that new tongue.

The changes that come with learning another language are more than just metaphors; your brain undergoes physical changes that strengthen its capacity to solve problems, resolve conflicts and access memory. When you learn a new vocabulary, your brain must process the name you already know for an object as well as the new word you’ve acquired and decide quickly which word is appropriate. Those snap decisions take place constantly when you know two or more languages, acting as the mental equivalent of pumping iron and improving your brain power.

From enhancing your job prospects to enriching your travels, becoming bilingual opens new doors. However, the potential benefits to your brain may outweigh even these significant benefits. Language schools offer far more than greater vacation possibilities; they may be your brain’s ultimate workout facility.

Jill Burbank is a professional inbound marketer who guest blogs for a variety of online publications. Jill Burbank is a part of an elite team of writers who have contributed to hundreds of blogs and news sites, including Reuters, SEOmoz.org and The Washington Post. Follow her @JillBurbank2.