Your Brain on Multiple Languages



Image: REUTERS/Chris Helgren





Developing the custom ORIGINS Education Language Programme ignites within each of us a passionate and deep-seated response. ORIGINS believes that having control of languages, especially the English and Chinese languages, is fundamental to the future success of today’s youth. As any school that undertakes building or refining such a programme can attest however, constructing a dual language programme is a complex and challenging task. This challenge, and the magnitude of its ramifications drive us to scrutinize our own personal experiences, our hopes for our children, and our expectations of what tomorrow will hold – for all of us.

Over Half the World Speaks at Least Two Languages

In this week’s “Good Read”, we direct your attention to an article titled “Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit” posted on the World Economic Forum website. The article states:

Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language – South Africa has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of “super” languages, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority, and perhaps to be missing out.

Two thirds of Working Age Europeans Know a Foreign Language


As both physical and digital technologies make the world smaller, and people travel more for work or leisure, the ability to converse in a second language, especially if that language is English, offers all of us opportunities for richer connections and engagement across our interactions.

We also know, thanks to improving neuroscience, that adding a second (or third) language can have a profound effect on the brain itself. An excerpt from the article below highlights how the bilingual or multilingual brain is in fact in many ways different and more robust than the monolingual brain, while also showing resiliency to diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and benefiting from increases in executive functioning.

As neuroscience has developed, research findings increasingly show that learning a second (or third language) can have a profound effect on the brain itself. In a recent article published on the World Economic Forum website, with an excerpt below, highlights how the bilingual or multilingual brain is in fact in many ways more robust than the monolingual brain.

In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex, and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says. The ACC is like a cognitive muscle, he adds: the more you use it, the stronger, bigger and more flexible it gets.

Bilinguals, it turns out, exercise their executive control all the time because their two languages are constantly competing for attention. Brain-imaging studies show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one language, their ACC is continually suppressing the urge to use words and grammar from their other language. Not only that, but their mind is always making a judgement about when and how to use the target language. For example, bilinguals rarely get confused between languages, but they may introduce the odd word or sentence of the other language if the person they are talking to also knows it.

“My mother tongue is Polish but my wife is Spanish so I also speak Spanish, and we live in Edinburgh so we also speak English,” says Thomas Bak. “When I am talking to my wife in English, I will sometimes use Spanish words, but I never accidentally use Polish. And when I am speaking to my wife’s mother in Spanish, I never accidentally introduce English words because she doesn’t understand them. It’s not something I have to think about, it’s automatic, but my executive system is working very hard to inhibit the other languages.”

Research into the positive effects of language learning is fascinating, and we encourage you to follow the development of the ORIGINS Education Language Programme from our website and other media channels, and to extend your understanding of bilingual learning and its effects through reading and discussion.

Read the full article (English) on the World Economic Forum website

More on the bilingual brain in youth can be found in this EduTopia article: