Multilingual minds may be mightier meditators

Posted on: 22 May 2012

Written by: chris

“I used to think the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, well, look what’s telling me that” - Emo Philips.

Hot psycholinguistic news (I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever blogged that particular phrase) from Northwestern University in Chicago, which recently released a study attracting fairly wide media coverage about a link between bilingualism and increased brain activity.

Note they’re not specifically saying that learning extra languages makes you extra brainy. What they are saying, in fact, is, “Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages“. Dear reader, I wouldn’t dream of patronising you with an attempt to interpret what that means in layman’s terms, but I can see why the media thought it would be worth sexing their headlines up a little for mass consumption – the BBC’s deboffinised™ effort came out as “Being bilingual boosts brain power“, while Northwestern’s own campus magazine went with the rather more prosaic “Study shows bilingual students have better attention” (honestly, what was wrong with “Study shows speaking Spanish simultaneously stimulates smartness”?). You’ll already have found my own stab at a tabloid-style reduction above.

We’re on safer (and certainly less alliterative) ground when we turn to what actually happened in the tests carried out by the Northwestern researchers. Having recruited two groups of monolingual (English-speaking) and bilingual (English and Spanish-speaking) first-year students and carried out basic tests to confirm their stated language proficiency, the researchers played the subjects a simple sound (the syllable “Da”) several times, first against a quiet environment and then again with background noise.

And the outcome? “Bilinguals showed enhanced encoding of the fundamental frequency, a feature known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects”. For the Janet and John version, let’s turn this time to Viorica Marian, one of the researchers, who summarised thus, “When a background noise was incorporated, like in a noisy restaurant, bilinguals showed an advantage over monolinguals, suggesting that bilingualism helps individuals process sounds better.” The researchers also conducted cognitive attention tests on the participants, and found that the observed increase in brain activity translated into improved levels of attention in practical terms.

This all sounds like good news to me, although it may be a bit of a leap to infer from the study that learning an extra language automatically raises your IQ, as you might have been led to believe by, say, the BBC’s headline. Specifically, the researchers didn’t seem to have reached a conclusion about the more intriguing question (for me, at least) – the extent to which these findings might also apply to people learning a second language later in life. That’s an issue Marian says she’ll be concentrating on in future studies, so you’ll just have to wait for further news.

Even so, the next time my brain’s trying to impress me with just how clever it is, perhaps it would be better off telling me in Spanish…

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