09 January 2013

Bilinguals Are Faster In Task Switching Than Single Language Speakers

A study shows evidence that people who speak more than one language are faster at switching from one task to another than single language speakers because of their cognitive development. The accuracy in completing the tasks by both groups are the same.

Bilingualism or multilingualism is the ability to converse in more than one language. Because of globalization, the internet, and an international economy, the ability to communicate in more than one language is becoming a necessity.

There are two ways that a person can be bilingual (or multilingual), either the second language is learned (as in a class or school) or that the person is immersed in it because of environment, culture, or family ties.

Other studies on the effect of being bilingual have shown that Dual language speakers better able to encode basic language sounds and patterns. Also, studies have shown that bilinguals have a lower risk of dementia than single language speakers.

"Previous studies have established that bilingualism has a beneficial effect on cognitive development in children," explains Dr. Ellen Bialystok from York University. "In our paper, we reviewed recent studies using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine the effects of bilingualism on cognition in adults."

Cognition is a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, producing and understanding language, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making.

Bilinguals Are Faster At Switching Tasks

Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the January 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals also show different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the study found.

The findings suggest the value of regular stimulating mental activity across the lifetime. As people age, cognitive flexibility — the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances — and related “executive” functions decline. Recent studies suggest lifelong bilingualism may reduce this decline — a boost that may stem from the experience of constantly switching between languages. However, how brain activity differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals was previously unclear.

In the current study, Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (ages 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual seniors as they completed a task that tested their cognitive flexibility. The researchers found that both groups performed the task accurately. However, bilingual seniors were faster at completing the task than their monolingual peers despite expending less energy in the frontal cortex — an area known to be involved in task switching.

Video: Living and Learning in a Bilingual Country

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity — in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis — and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.

Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” Gold said. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”


Society for Neuroscience
The Journal of Neuroscience
University of Kentucky College of Medicine
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