5 Benefits of Being Bilingual for Your Brain

16 April, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana
Are there benefits of being bilingual for the brain? In what sense? Can mastering two languages help us to delay dementia? What does science say about it?

Did you know that there are different benefits of being bilingual? Our brain is well prepared to learn more than one language, especially during childhood. This is due to its great neuronal plasticity.

There are even many studies that assure us that learning a second language makes it possible to delay or eliminate the risk of suffering from certain neurodegenerative diseases.

In addition to this, being bilingual is related to greater cognitive flexibility and a better concentration capacity, and could even favor cognitive recovery after a stroke. Would you like to know more about the benefits of being bilingual for your brain? We’ll tell you!

5 benefits of being bilingual for your brain

According to an article (2012) by Mayte Rius, published in La Vanguardia, many research groups are trying to find out how learning different languages affects the brain.

This research has been active for several years, and there are still many unanswered questions. However, there’s already data that proves that the bilingual brain doesn’t work the same as the monolingual brain (in people who only speak one language).

But are there really benefits to being bilingual at the level of the brain? Neuroscience suggests that there are, and in this article, we have selected 5 of its most relevant benefits.

1. It delays dementia

The benefits of being bilingual can include people with Alzheimer's.
Although it hasn’t been shown to prevent the disease, speaking multiple languages may delay the onset of dementia symptoms.

One of the main benefits of being bilingual for the brain is that it can delay the onset of dementia. This condition enhances attention and memory, which would favor people’s cognitive reserve.

This is related to a decreased risk of developing dementia, and symptoms of dementia are delayed in people who have been bilingual all their lives.

In this sense, experts point out that mastering two languages protects us from possible cognitive decline. In other words, enjoying mental (and also physical) health throughout life prepares us for healthier aging.

Study: bilingualism and dementias

A team of researchers from the Rotman Institute, in Toronto, verified how people who spoke two or more languages regularly during their life, showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease between 4 and 5 years later than those who spoke only one language.

However, Fergus Crack, the head of the study, is cautious in his conclusions. Crack assures that it isn’t the case that “bilingualism prevents Alzheimer’s”, but that it provides a mental stimulation that creates a cognitive reserve, and it’s this that would delay the appearance of the symptoms of the disease.

It’s curious that once Alzheimer’s appears in bilingual people, the two languages are affected in parallel. However, the deterioration is a little higher in the language they learned later on.

2. It leaves an imprint on the brain

Mastering two languages creates a brain reflex. In this sense, the frontal lobes (in charge of cognitive functions), would be the regions most related to bilingualism.

A study by the University of Washington (USA), carried out with an 11-month-old baby from bilingual families (who speak Catalan and Spanish), showed significant differences in these brain areas.

Through research, they observed that babies raised in bilingual parents’ homes showed brain activity that was related to executive functioning. This was shown from just 11 months of life.

3. It increases concentration and cognitive flexibility

Another benefit of being bilingual for the brain is that it increases the ability to concentrate, especially in children. This would be related to greater cognitive flexibility, as your brain has had to “adapt” or adjust to speaking more than one language.

4. Improves recovery after a stroke

A stroke, also called a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), is a cerebrovascular disease that affects the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.

When the blood doesn’t reach its destination area (due to rupture of the vessels or because an anoxia occurs), then a stroke occurs. This results in the consequent neuronal death of the area.

It’s possible that bilingual people are more likely to recover, on a cognitive level, after suffering a stroke, compared to people who only speak one language.

5. It promotes brain activity

The benefits of being bilingual are due to neural connections.
Neural connections are the basis for increased brain activity in these people.

In relation to what has already been commented, experts assure us that being bilingual results in greater brain activity.

In other words, our brain is most active when it must learn two different languages. This is so because learning a new language, even if you are small, requires a certain cognitive effort, as well as increased attention.

When we master two mother tongues, and many times we no longer “think” when we switch from one language to another, the reality is that our brain is more active during these changes.

Furthermore, this “extra” brain activity exhibited by bilinguals has been linked to a higher density of gray matter (the matter that contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses).

This increase in density is related to the delay of certain diseases that we’ve already mentioned, such as dementias in general or Alzheimer’s.

A more complex habit than it seems

Although there are still unanswered questions in this interesting field, what is clear is that, at a cognitive and cerebral level, mastering more than one language has advantages. There are different types of bilingualism, and the three most important are the following:

  • Composite: People who learn two languages using only one set of concepts.
  • Coordinated: People who learn two languages using two sets of concepts.
  • Subordinate: People who learn a second language by filtering it first through their mother tongue.

It would be interesting to see if there are differences, in the brain, between one type of bilingualism and another. However, we can say confidently that being bilingual, in any of its forms, does bring certain benefits.

  • Ferreiro, E. (1997), “El bilingüismo: una visión positiva”, en: Garza Cuarón (ed.), Políticas lingüísticas en México, México, La Jornada Ediciones.
  • Montrul, S. (2013). El bilingüismo en el mundo hispanohablante. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Vallverdú, F. (1972). Ensayos sobre bilingüismo. Edit. Ariel. Barcelona.