Northwestern study finds bilingual brains process information more easily

Jeanne Kuang, Campus Editor

A new study by Northwestern researchers indicates the brains of bilingual speakers process information more efficiently than those of people who only speak one language, the University announced last week.

Communication Prof. Viorica Marian, lead author of the study, explained bilingual brains are already constantly exercised choosing words from different languages, so they filter information faster.

The study, published Nov. 12 in the Brain and Language journal, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to test bilingual brains’ activation of different languages and selection of the correct language to use, according to a news release. Volunteers in the study were given a word and given four pictures, including a picture representing word and a picture representing similar-sounding but unrelated words. The volunteers had to select the picture representing the original word.

The fMRI scans showed more brain flow in single-language speakers during the task.

“They had to work much harder to perform the task,” Marian said in the news release.

Bilingual brains filtered out pictures of competing words better, according to the release.

“It’s like a stop light,” Marian said in the release. “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need.”

In the news release, Marian said speaking an additional language provides “built-in exercise” for the brain, which may explain why bilingualism appears to offer a protective advantage over Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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