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The Bilingual Brain: The Ferrari of Brains (I’m Talking Enzo)

The bilingual brain, that fascinating piece of real estate located at the pinnacle of our human bodies, is amazing… if your into squishy, squashy stuff. It’s especially amazing when you understand it in relation to bilingualism and language learning; my two favorite subjects!

bilingual brain

The bilingual brain is the Enzo Ferrari of brains. photo cred johnny rovi.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that reads this blog that the bilingual brain produces slightly more horsepower. It idles at slightly higher RMPs. The many benefits of being bilingual have been well documented in an earlier post of mine, however I will highlight a few of those again here with regards to the brain.

While we know that the bilingual brain encourages increased attention, focus, and cognition, recent studies show it also affects the brain at the highest levels of thinking and awareness. Neuroimaging of the bilingual brain shows increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex networks which directs executive function; including the functions mentioned above. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007). The executive function, or ‘horsepower’ as I like to call it, is increased in areas beyond the typical language input/output areas. This has huge ramifications for the bilingual brain.

Why Is This Important?

Executive function is important for a few reasons. It is essentially a network of cognitive abilities that help aid individuals in goal-oriented tasks…

“…including directing attentive focus, prioritizing, planning, self-monitoring, inhibitory control, judgment, working memory (maintenance and manipulation of information), and analysis.” – from psychology today

The advantages of having a souped up executive network are self-evident. This topic is pretty research-language heavy, as in, not written in plain English, however to simplify it, I like to think of it like this:

bilingual brain

Bilingual brains definitely get used. photo credit telltalic.

The bilingual brain is constantly exposed to options. It has to constantly make decisions on which word, grammar, and language system to use. This depends on a multitude of factors; who they are speaking to, where they are, what their goal is, etc. This seems like a lot of decision-making pressure to put on an infant or child, however when it is within the parameters of natural language acquisition it is seemless and devoid of stress.

To stick with the car analogy, it’s like putting a chip in your car or truck to give it more horsepower. You’re not so much changing the way the vehicle runs, you’re just making it more efficient by forcing it to operate in a different way. If done correctly it doesn’t harm the vehicle; it enhances it.

The same is true for the bilingual brain.

The brain is made stronger and fine-tuned through this process of having to make split-second decisions all the time. It has to prioritize the various elements of language creation (grammar, vocabulary, etc) and then it has to put it all together in addition to the regular mechanics of language at talking speed. Anyone who has had the joy to learn a language language knows exactly what I’m talking about and how taxing this is on the brain. Now imagine doing that your whole life.

This is intriguing… do you have one more analogy to really help cement the point?

bilingual brain

Having a bilingual brain is like doing pushups… kind of? photo credit: stroopsmma.

I sure do! In a really simplified version, think of it like this: every time you get a phone call, you drop and do 10 pushups. This pattern forces you to do a lot of pushups. Whether or not you are doing anything else physical in your life, you will ultimately get stronger based on this. You are not trying to get stronger, it’s just a byproduct of your lifestyle. This increase strength trickles down into other areas of your life and indirectly makes you a better athlete, healthier, etc. The same thing happens with the bilingual brain. Forcing the brain to constantly choose increases the brains ability to make decisions, prioritize information, focus, distill unimportant information, and ultimately be more ‘executive like.’

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About Jeffrey Nelson

Jeffrey Nelson is a husband, father, author and bilingual living and working in the Midwestern United States. He lives with his Mexican wife and their son, Liam, who is currently being raised bilingual in English and Spanish.

2 comments… add one

  1. Steve

    Fascinating article! I am currently studying the executive network of the brain and it makes sense that bilingual brains would have improved cognitive abilities. You did a great job of explaining it.

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Thanks Steve! I appreciate the input :) I also thought it was fascinating. I love the brain :P


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