The different brain of a bilingual

For the last two years I have been living in Brussels, a city with a large population of young Europeans with dual citizenship. I have always been a bit envious of people who are ‘natives’ in such an international environment and who grew up with multiple languages.  But let’s set my envy aside and take a scientific approach: are bilinguals really different? Does their brain develop differently?

Image: Harnet Russell/New York Times

Image: Harnet Russell/New York Times

“Being bilingual definitively makes life easier. You get two languages for one,” says Corina, a Cypriot-Swedish girl who grew up with Greek, English and Swedish. And when I ask Xavier, who is Belgian-Spanish, whether it is an advantage or a disadvantage to be raised with multiple languages, he hardly takes my question seriously – of course it’s beneficial!

Benefits

Yet, the thought that it is advantageous to grow up bilingual is relatively new. Only thirty years ago, researchers thought children would confuse the different sounds, grammar and vocabulary and end up speaking both languages badly. Though research suggests bilinguals on average have a slightly smaller vocabulary, the benefits seem to outweigh this disadvantage by far.

Children learn languages naturally because adults facilitate it in everything they do. Imagine that everybody around you spoke the language you want to learn. How well would you speak Arabic or Spanish in five years? You would naturally pick it up. Similarly, little Corina and Xavier weren’t really aware that their parents were exposing them to multiple languages. It was a fully automated process.

As they cried, ate and did those other things that babies do, their brains learned to distinguish the sounds of English and Greek (or French). Research has shown that these abilities are already formed within the first twelve months of life. For instance, the Japanese often find it very hard to distinguish between the letters “i” and “r” because their brains weren’t exposed to these sounds during that crucial window before their first birthday. At TEDxRainier, Patricia Kuhl explains why.

But that doesn’t mean the window of opportunity closes after the first year. Until the end of adolescence, one can still learn languages very well. And some of the benefits, like a lower risk of Alzheimer and dementia, even apply to people who learn a second language later in life.

Broca's and Wernicke's areas in the brain. Source: Hawaii university

Broca's and Wernicke's areas in the brain. Source: University of Hawaii

Bilingual brains

Let’s return to the initial question: do bilinguals use their brain differently? Research suggests they do. Humans typically process languages in the Broca and Wernicke areas in the brain’s left hemisphere. The interesting thing is that bilinguals are using the same brain tissue for both languages they were exposed to when their brain matured in utero and early in life. However, people who learn a language later in life need to ‘call in help’ from other parts of the brain. Apparently, brain tissue has a maturation period during which certain abilities are developed. The reason that vocabulary is much easier to learn than syntax and pronunciation is that the maturation time for the latter tasks is accessed way earlier in a human’s life.

That’s not all, however. Recently, a lot of research has been conducted comparing bilingual brains to unilingual brains. Findings reveal that bilinguals are typically more creative, better able to recognise mistakes in syntax and better equipped to conduct two tasks simultaneously. As research progresses, we will learn more and more reasons to raise our kids with multiple languages.