Brainy bilinguals: language learning makes for snappier decision-making

I spend a lot of time singing the praises of language learning and trying to encourage school pupils to keep up their language studies. So it’s good to see more evidence that bilingualism is good for the brain, including in non-linguistic ways.

According to a new study by researchers based in Barcelona, Hong Kong, London and Milan and coordinated by Jubin Abutalebi, bilingualism tunes the anterior cingulate cortex for conflict monitoring. Essentially, learning two languages (not necessarily from birth) helps bilinguals reach decisions more rapidly, flexibly and with less effort than is the case for monolingual people.

I blether on to people about language learning being a sort of work-out for the brain: just as your body benefits from physical exercise, your brain benefits from the mental exercise required to switch between languages. Well, the study found that bilingualism actually increases the volume of your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain linked with language control and resolving nonverbal conflict. So just as you can tone up your muscles by going to the gym, you can build up your brain — and your decision-making abilities — by speaking two languages.

You can read a report (in Italian) in “la Repubblica’s” article Bilingui, più rapidi ed efficienti nel prendere decisioni critiche.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. Very interesting study! I have long known about some of the benefits of being bilingual, but this is a new one for me. I like the idea of language learning as the “going to the gym” for your brain!

  2. While I am not bilingual, I see the benefits of knowing other languages every single day. Whether this is through demonstrating cultural understanding or trying to think of that “perfect word”, my brain definitely gets a work-out!

  3. I’m all for having kids acquire language skills, although I’m not sure that ‘reaching decisions more quickly’ is by itself a great skill. I know plenty of people who make ‘bad’ quality decisions in a hurry.

    I’ll keep watching for the study that says language skills improve the quality of decisions made.

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