Speaking two languages is better for your brain than Sudoku

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(Photo by Flickr user Saad Faruque)

The mental workout of constantly balancing two competing vocabularies makes it easier for bilinguals to process information, according to a new study published in Brain and Language on Wednesday.

The research, conducted by brain structure specialist Viorica Marian of Northwestern University, suggests foregoing Sudoku because “speaking multiple languages routinely exercises the brain.”

Bilingualism, or the brain’s ability to accommodate two languages, means your brain is perpetually working to tune out one messaging system. When someone can think equally well in more than one set of words, your cognition skills sharpen.

Marian asked her subjects (17 Spanish – English and 18 English monolinguals) to match a spoken word with one of four pictures. Objects in the pictures were phonetically similar, for example “candle” and “candy.” Using fMRI tests (functional magnetic resonance imaging,) Marian and her team found that monolinguals had higher blood flow to the brain when performing mental exercises. The measured increase in oxygen for the monolinguals during the tasks signaled their brains were working harder.

Both languages are “active” in the brain, with a wealth of words to choose from. Their processing system is always in gear, which results in a “more efficient deployment of neural resources,” the study concludes.

Marian’s findings can be compared to what she found in a report published last month in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. It suggested bilingual children were better at ignoring classroom noise.

“Whether we’re driving or performing surgery, it’s important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn’t,” Mariana believes.

It appears that bilingual speakers have a competitive advantage.

The professor adds, “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need.”

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