Brainy bilinguals: language learning makes for snappier decision-making

I spend a lot of time singing the praises of language learning and trying to encourage school pupils to keep up their language studies. So it’s good to see more evidence that bilingualism is good for the brain, including in non-linguistic ways.

According to a new study by researchers based in Barcelona, Hong Kong, London and Milan and coordinated by Jubin Abutalebi, bilingualism tunes the anterior cingulate cortex for conflict monitoring. Essentially, learning two languages (not necessarily from birth) helps bilinguals reach decisions more rapidly, flexibly and with less effort than is the case for monolingual people.

I blether on to people about language learning being a sort of work-out for the brain: just as your body benefits from physical exercise, your brain benefits from the mental exercise required to switch between languages. Well, the study found that bilingualism actually increases the volume of your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain linked with language control and resolving nonverbal conflict. So just as you can tone up your muscles by going to the gym, you can build up your brain — and your decision-making abilities — by speaking two languages.

You can read a report (in Italian) in “la Repubblica’s” article Bilingui, più rapidi ed efficienti nel prendere decisioni critiche.

By Marian Dougan

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting study! I have long known about some of the benefits of being bilingual, but this is a new one for me. I like the idea of language learning as the “going to the gym” for your brain!

  2. While I am not bilingual, I see the benefits of knowing other languages every single day. Whether this is through demonstrating cultural understanding or trying to think of that “perfect word”, my brain definitely gets a work-out!

  3. I’m all for having kids acquire language skills, although I’m not sure that ‘reaching decisions more quickly’ is by itself a great skill. I know plenty of people who make ‘bad’ quality decisions in a hurry.

    I’ll keep watching for the study that says language skills improve the quality of decisions made.

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