The Secrets of the Bilingual Brain

Can you speak more than one language?

If you can, you might use your cognitive resources in a very efficient way. This can lead you to be good at things like multitasking and visual analysis.  Further more, because of the way multilinguists use their brain you may also be less prone to visible ageing of the brain in later life… This according to a new study from a team of neuroscientists in Quebec.

(c) WordPress 2015

(c) WordPress 2015

Published late 2016, this study reveals how the mechanics of language learning and interpretation allows the brain to adopt new techniques for more efficient information acquirement as well as an increased economic brain usage that may also reduce the effects of brain ageing.

This study brings new material to a field of study that has received considerate research but also significant debate on findings. There is still a varying debate regarding the quantification of the nature of the brain differences, and any potential advantages observed, in multilingual individuals. Findings are often disputed due to the various natures of language acquirement, language form and levels of education prior and post language acquirement which makes establishing and studying a uniform study group complex.

The research team chose the study the node interactions, both regional and zone specific,  that occurred within the brain when occupied with a complex task.

Example of Brain Node clusters (c) Crossley et al. 2014

Example of Brain Node clusters (c) Crossley et al. 2014

Their results show that multilinguals had greater connectivity in the area of the brain dedicated to visuospatial processing, the inferior temporal sulcus, compared to monolinguals. Indeed, monolinguals, in order to complete the same task, engaged more sections of their brain than multilinguals. This means that multilinguals, when faced with a visuospatial interference, use their brain in a more economic way by allocating fewer and more clustered regions.

To establish this, the research team used ‘The Simon task’. This is a test based on ‘stimulus response compatibility’ and allows observers to assess ‘the ability to attend to task-relevant nonspatial information (i.e., the color of the stimuli) and to ignore task-irrelevant spatial information (i.e., the stimuli position on the computer screen)’. Throughout the task the colours and the stimuli positions are modified and the individual is asked to performed various tasks in relation to these changes.

The Simon Task (c) Science Direct

The Simon Task (c) Science Direct

By using the Simon Task, the researchers hoped to observe the ‘Simon Effect’. This is the difference between response times for different conditions of the Simon task between various groups of individuals. In prior studies specific to multilinguist brain activity results generated from the task have been varied.  Some have shown response times to be smaller in bilinguals than monolinguals, others have observed no difference between the candidates.

All candidates for the study completed the Simon Task. Whilst all being born and raised in Montreal, monolinguals spoke only French whilst bilingual candidates were late English and French speakers.

To observe brain connectivity and function, the team used full-head MRI scans on candidates undergoing the Simon task. This allowed direct observation of both level of brain activity as well as its location. During  analysis, the specific areas used during the task as well as the connectivity of that area were compared.

MRI (c) istock

MRI (c) istock

Overall the team found that multilinguals had a larger global efficiency of brain use in task performance. This is achieved by using a higher connectivity level between nodes across a smaller area compared to monolinguals who require a larger area and connectivity circuit to complete the same task. These results consolidate other similar research projects within this area of neuroscience thus potentially confirming the cognitive advantage of specific life experience such as multilingualism.

The study has added a new level of understanding to the potential of brain plasticity through learning. It also shows how experience plays an experience in cognitive efficiency and opens up potential areas of study regarding ‘brain training’ potential of certain cognitive exercises.

Aging Brain (c) Discover Magazine 2012

Aging Brain (c) Discover Magazine 2012

However the most interesting observation from this study is that multilinguals might in fact be less prone to perceptible aging of the brain in later life. Indeed, the study found that multilinguals can complete tasks with lesser use of the frontal lobe, the area of the brain most prone to perceptible cognitive aging, as they use smaller and more clustered node circuits in other regions of the brain.

Thus, multi linguists may be less prone to the effects memory loss and cognitive degenerative diseases such as alzheimer’s. So overall they could potentially experience a lessened degenerative cognitive ageing process. More research within this area is needed but such findings could provide vital insight into the cognitive aging process and how its effects could potentially be limited through, for example, specific brain exercise programs.


Berroir, P. Ghazi-Saidi, L. Dash, T. Adrover-Roig, D. Benalie, H. and Ansaldo, A. I. (2016) ‘Interference control at the response level: Functional networks reveal higher efficiency in the bilingual brain’ Journal of Neurolinguists 1-13.

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Lillian Stanton

I am a student in science and media communications. I am particularly fascinated by biological sciences, robotics and behavioural psychology.

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