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Language switchers are brain trainers

If you can read this while English is not your mother tongue, then you are part of the increasing amount of bilinguals in the world. But did you know that speaking multiple languages can improve your executive functioning skills?

‘Why should I learn all these languages?’ is a question my classmates often asked when I was in high school. My parents didn’t quite know the answer, they were and will always be proud speakers of Dunglish. It was undeniable however, that we Dutchmen would have to learn other languages to survive in this globalizing world, and we weren’t the only ones. Nowadays, around 50% of the world’s population speaks more than one language. This opens all kinds of doors: we can meet and communicate with people that are continents away from us. We can do business with them, form friendships or fall in love; hence the increase in bilingually raised children. However, the initial idea about being bilingual was that it would only be confusing and exhausting. The question was raised whether bilingually raised children would fall behind in school, because they experienced extra workload because of their second language learning. Luckily, many studies show that this is not the case. Even though bilingual children have a smaller vocabulary in each language than their monolingual peers, they show better metalinguistic awareness and all kinds of executive functioning advantages.

Three aspects of executive functioning that play a role here are updating of working memory, inhibition of distractors and shifting between mental sets. The idea behind a bilingual advantage in these aspects is simple. Bilinguals would be better at updating their working memory, because they are trained to keep track of two vocabularies. Bilinguals would have better inhibitory control, because they are trained to inhibit one language while using the other. And, bilinguals would be better at task switching because they are trained in switching between languages. Especially the latter two aspects caught the interest of researchers in the field. They investigated the inhibitory skills of bilinguals with tasks such as the Stroop task, the Simon task and the Flanker task, and found indications for an advantage for bilinguals of all ages. In fact, one study showed that this advantage was already present in two-year-olds. Having great inhibitory control can be very useful in different situations. When you are able to inhibit distractions around you, you can keep your attention on the task that you are doing and in that way, you are able to concentrate better. Many studies also showed a bilingual advantage in task switching. The ability to switch between tasks can come in handy for example in traffic. The influence of lifelong bilingualism can even be beneficial at an older age: being bilingual seems to have a protective effect against executive function decline.

Now, with all this positive news about bilinguals, you’re possibly already planning the bilingual upbringing of your future child. However, recent studies are challenging the idea of a bilingual advantage in executive functioning. One of these studies tested bilinguals and monolinguals on fifteen different executive functioning tasks, and no differences in performance were found. These results seem to contradict the idea of a link between language control and executive control. This is not how we should think, however, Cattaneo and his colleagues argue. They propose that language control and executive control largely overlap, but that there are still independent language-specific control systems in the brain. Therefore, if you are bilingually raised, this does not necessarily mean that you outperform monolinguals in executive functioning. Also, there are indications that a publication bias exists in this field of study. This means that out of all the studies about this subject, the ones that supported the existence of a bilingual advantage were published more often. In other words, the bilingual advantage might not be as evident as we think.

However, there are still strong indications that a bilingual upbringing can have an influence on your executive functioning skills. In a way, you could say that language switchers are brain trainers: they stimulated their cognitive functioning system early in life, and they can benefit from this throughout their lives. To answer my classmate’s question, maybe this is one of the reasons why we should learn all those languages. It is not a necessity however: you can still rock an executive functioning task, even if you are a proud speaker of Dunglish.