Are you part of the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority? If you can speak more than one language, you belong to a group of people who have an easier time traveling, communicating, and even watching movies without subtitles. But did you know that knowing multiple languages can also change the way your brain works?
Language ability is typically measured in two active parts (speaking and writing) and two passive parts (listening and reading). While a balanced bilingual has near equal abilities across the board in two languages, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in varying proportions.
The Three Types of Bilingual People
Depending on their situation and how they acquired each language, bilingual people can be classified into three general types: compound, coordinate, and subordinate.
Compound bilinguals develop two linguistic codes simultaneously, with a single set of concepts, learning both languages as they begin to process the world around them. For example, a child whose family immigrates to the US from Peru when they’re two-years old may become a compound bilingual by developing proficiency in both English and Spanish.
Coordinate bilinguals, on the other hand, work with two sets of concepts, learning one language in school and another at home or with friends. For instance, a teenager whose family speaks Spanish at home but learns English in school can be classified as a coordinate bilingual.
Finally, subordinate bilinguals learn a secondary language by filtering it through their primary language. Gabriella’s parents in the earlier example could be considered subordinate bilinguals since they likely learned English by translating it from Spanish.
The Effects of Bilingualism on the Brain
While the difference between the language abilities of bilingual and monolingual people may not be apparent to a casual observer, recent advances in brain imaging technology have given neurolinguists a glimpse into how specific aspects of language learning affect the bilingual brain.
It’s well known that the brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant and analytical in logical processes, while the right hemisphere is more active in emotional and social ones. However, since language involves both types of functions while lateralization develops gradually with age, the critical period hypothesis suggests that children learn languages more easily because the plasticity of their developing brains allows them to use both hemispheres in language acquisition.
Conversely, recent research showed that people who learned a second language in adulthood exhibit less emotional bias and a more rational approach when confronting problems in the second language than in their native one. But regardless of when you acquire additional languages, being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
The Advantages of Being Multilingual
Being multilingual has numerous cognitive benefits. For example, bilinguals have higher density of the grey matter that contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses, and they exhibit more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language. The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia, by as much as five years.
Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap that slowed a child’s development by forcing them to spend too much energy distinguishing between languages, a view based largely on flawed studies. However, a more recent study showed that the effort and attention needed to switch between languages triggered more activity in, and potentially strengthened, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that plays a large role in executive function, problem solving, switching between tasks, and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information.