Most of us communicate with one another in a single common language, while some of us are part of the bilingual and multilingual world that can speak and write in two or more languages. Bilingualism can make things like traveling or watching movies easier, while also providing benefits for the brain. In a TED-Ed lesson, “The benefits of a bilingual brain,” Mia Nacamulli explains how learning a second language can boost brain health in the three types of bilingual brains that exist.
“While a balanced bilingual has near equal abilities across the board in two languages, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in varying proportions,” says Nacamulli in the video.
Depending on their situation and how they acquired each language, bilinguals can be classified into three general types of brains: compound bilingual, coordinate bilingual, and subordinate bilingual. Those who are compound bilingual developed two linguistic codes simultaneously with a single set of concepts (e.g., learning English and Spanish has you begin to process the world). In coordinate bilingual, the person works with two sets of concepts (e.g., learning English in school while continuing to speak their native tongue at home and with their friends). Lastly, there are subordinate bilinguals who learn a secondary language by filtering it through their primary language.
Although bilingual people can become fluent in a language regardless of their accent or pronunciation, there are differences present in the bilingual brain seen via brain imaging technology. Language involves the functions of both the brain’s left hemisphere (dominant and analytical in logical processes) and right hemisphere (active in emotional and social processes) as the lateralization develops gradually with age. The critical period hypothesis suggests people who learned a second language have a holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts, while those who learn in adulthood show less of an emotional bias and a more rational approach.
Now, regardless of whether you learned a second language as a child or an adult, there are benefits for the brain. The bilingual brain contains a higher density of gray matter, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. Engaging in a second language also leads to more activity in certain brain regions, giving it a mental workout while also helping delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia by as much as five years, according to the TED-Ed video.
A 2014 study published in the journal Brain and Language found people who speak more than one language are better at filtering out unnecessary words than monolinguals. The brains of those who only knew one language had to work harder to complete the same mental tasks. The researchers believe this is because being bilingual is a constant brain exercise.
Bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter, but it can keep your brain healthy and active. Whether someone is a lifelong bilingual or just recently learned, there are plenty of mental health benefits. It’s never too late to learn a new language, for your brain’s sake.