Bilingual Competence Strengthens Brain’s “Executive Control,” “Adaptive Modulation”

Andrea Stocco

Andrea Stocco

Learning a second language in childhood or later in life provides numerous benefits, including:

  • Increased cultural awareness,
  • Enhanced creativity,
  • Possibly delaying cognitive deterioration associated with dementia.

Bilingual individuals excel on several cognitive measures, including “executive control”, measured by speed in applying new rules and switching tasks on a Rapid Instructed Task Learning (RITL) paradigm, according to University of Washington’s Andrea Stocco and Chantel S. Prat.

Chantel Prat

Chantel Prat

In addition, bilingual volunteers showed greater “adaptive modulation” of the brain’s the basal ganglia striatal activity, suggesting that competence in multiple languages changes brain activation patterns and structures.

Bilingual people’s performance advantages in executive functioning may develop as they adaptively select and apply different rules when speaking multiple languages, surmised Stocco and Prat.
They suggested that this behavioral flexibility may strengthen the brain’s fronto-striatal loops that connect to the prefrontal cortex.

The team evaluated 17 bilingual and 14 monolingual volunteers on their language proficiency and arithmetic problems defined by a set of operations and two uniquely-specified inputs.
Participants completed practice problems using just two operation sets, then tackled another set combining new items and some from the practice set.
For the final round, volunteers completed new and practice items while in an fMRI brain scanner.

Bilinguals completed the new problems significantly more quickly than monolinguals, although both groups performed similarly on familiar items, suggesting that people with multiple language competence may have an advantage in rapidly processing new information and unfamiliar challenges.

The physiological basis for this performance difference was revealed by the fMRI scan:  There was increased activity during work on novel problems in the bilingual volunteers’ basal ganglia.
This brain area is associated with learning linked to rewards and motor functions, and to prioritizing information before directing it to the prefrontal cortex for further processing. 

Ellen Bialystok

Ellen Bialystok

This research suggests that learning multiple languages trains the basal ganglia to switch more efficiently between the rules and vocabulary of different languages, a skill which can generalize to other tasks such as arithmetic.

Michelle Martin-Rhee

Michelle Martin-Rhee

The roots of this cognitive advantage is based on childhood bilingualism, which can also train inhibition of attention for perceptual information, found York University’s Ellen Bialystok and Michelle M. Martin-Rhee.

They noted that this effect was not due to differences in representational abilities because monolinguals ands bilinguals performed similarly on these tasks.
Bilingual preschoolers also showed greater creativity in non-mathematical and mathematical problem solving, reported University of Haifa’s Mark Leikin.

Mark Leikin

Mark Leikin

He compared bilingual children from a Hebrew–Russian kindergarten and a Hebrew monolingual kindergarten was well as monolingual children from a monolingual school on the Picture Multiple Solution task’s measure of general creativity and the Creating Equal Number task for mathematical creativity.
Bilingual children from the bilingual kindergarten showed significantly greater creativity on general and mathematical tasks than monolingual children.

Fergus I.M. Craik

Fergus I.M. Craik

Besides the benefit of enhanced creativity, bilingualism seems to be associated with later onset of dementia by four years, and less cognitive decline among more than 180 volunteers evaluated by York University’s Bialystok with Fergus I.M. Craik and Morris Freedman of University of Toronto.

Morris Freedman

Morris Freedman

They analyzed repeated Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scores and also found that elderly bilinguals performed better on switching attention between objects, as demonstrated in Stocco and Prat’s work.

Though learning a second language in adulthood is “an order of magnitude more difficult” than learning in childhood, according to Stocco and Prat, the cognitive benefits can make it worth the challenge and effort.

-*What benefits have you experienced associated with learning a second language or life-long fluency in another language?

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3 thoughts on “Bilingual Competence Strengthens Brain’s “Executive Control,” “Adaptive Modulation”

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Cheryl Yanek wrote:

    All my Spanish studying is definitely not in vein. I have access to so many more people, a greater understanding of culture, and it’s a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing.

    Kathryn responded:

    Thanks so much for weighing in on your experience, Cheryl.
    I echo your sentiments from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was able to order a print job today and actually receive the intended deliverable – not to mention gaining essential information from speakers of other languages.

    Thanks, also, to Tao Chen, who commented that these are reasons that Chinese students in the US go to Chinese school in addition to their regular school. Many parents can replicate his assertion for semi-enthusiastic language learners.

  2. Michel

    I am not sure to be pertinent with your nice article, but I wanted to participate to your Blog… !
    Being Bi, Tri, Quadri or more-lingual really forces to develop memory, plasticity, adaptation and other traits. But there is more.
    The language structure and the words used impose a different approach of how we will culturally behave.
    In French we say “Take a Decision” while in the US you ” Make a Decision”. When you notice that difference, it creates an advantage when sitting at the table when negotiating. The processes will be different at both sides of the table.
    In French, like in English, we have a structure where the verb follows the subject even in a proposition. In German or Dutch, the verb is rejected at the end of the proposition. You can’t interrupt because the sense of the sentence is not yet fully known. I see myself as a much better listener in Dutch than I am in French or English !
    Examples are numerous and the language really matters to shape the behaviours. Even in 1 language, we way we think or talk shape our behaviours, creativity, … NLP is all about that.

    I dare to say that we become someone else when we speak another language. Like chameleon, we gain instantly a cultural alignment in thinking, feeling and behaving with those in front of us.
    My 2 cents…

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Beautifully said, Michel.
      Like you, I’ve have felt like a chameleon while speaking another language or even while using British English idioms (“take a decision”) with UK speakers instead of the equivalent US English expression (“Make a decision”).
      A novelist whose native language was Polish, but later learned English in the U.S., recounted a related experience: When she received a marriage proposal in English, her lips said “yes” but her mind (in Polish) said “no.” She noted that this relationship ended in divorce several years later.
      It seems that the original language provided intuitive wisdom that had been overridden by later learning.


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