Maisie already knows English and Persian and a bit of Tagalog (Filipino). I have one person in the house who has exclusively spoken Farsi (Persian) to her since she was 4 months old. She can respond/answer in both languages interchangeably. My mother and I add a few Filipino words here and there…
It’s official! Speaking more than one language makes you smarter: Bilingual people have more grey matter than those who only know their mother tongue
- Being bilingual increases the grey matter in certain parts of the brain
- This difference is not present if the other language known is sign language
- Management of two spoken languages leads to cognitive advantages
People who speak two or more languages have more grey matter in certain parts of their brain, a study has found.
But this difference is not present if the other language known is sign language.
Scientists found that being bilingual increases the size of the part of the brain responsible for attention span and short term memory.
A study by Georgetown University Medical Centre found adults who are polyglots have more grey matter, shown above in blue, but those who used sign language did not (file image)
In the past it had been thought children who spoke two languages could have been at a disadvantage because the presence of two vocabularies would lead to delayed language development.
But recent research has found they perform better on tasks that require attention, inhibition and short-term memory – collectively termed ‘executive control’ – than their monolingual peers.
Yet controversy still surrounded whether there was a ‘bilingual advantage’, because these differences were not observed in all studies.
Now a study by Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington DC has found adults who are polyglots have more grey matter, but those who use sign language do not.
The management of two spoken languages, rather than simply a larger vocabulary observed in practitioners of sign language, improved cognitive performance. Above, a mother and child practice signing (file image)
It adds to a growing understanding of how long-term experience with a particular skill – in this case management of two languages – changes the brain.
Dr Guinevere Eden said: ‘Inconsistencies in the reports about the bilingual advantage stem primarily from the variety of tasks that are used in attempts to elicit the advantage.
‘Given this concern, we took a different approach and instead compared grey matter volume between adult bilinguals and monolinguals.
‘We reasoned that the experience with two languages and the increased need for cognitive control to use them appropriately would result in brain changes in Spanish-English bilinguals when compared with English-speaking monolinguals.
‘And in fact greater grey matter for bilinguals was observed in frontal and parietal brain regions that are involved in executive control.’
The study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, explored why differences in grey matter are based on experiences.
Dr Olumide Olulade said: ‘Our aim was to address whether the constant management of two spoken languages leads to cognitive advantages and the larger grey matter we observed in Spanish-English bilinguals, or whether other aspects of being bilingual, such as the large vocabulary associated with having two languages, could account for this.’
Researchers compared the grey matter in bilinguals of both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English, with that of monolingual users of English.
Both ASL-English and Spanish-English bilinguals share qualities associated with bilingualism, such as vocabulary size.
Unlike bilinguals of two spoken languages, ASL-English bilinguals can sign and speak simultaneously, allowing the researchers to test whether the need to inhibit the other language might explain the bilingual advantage.
Dr Olulade added: ‘Unlike the findings for the Spanish-English bilinguals, we found no evidence for greater grey matter in the ASL-English bilinguals.
‘Thus we conclude that the management of two spoken languages in the same modality, rather than simply a larger vocabulary, leads to the differences we observed in the Spanish-English bilinguals.’