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How Bilingualism Can Affect Your Brain

Speaking multiple languages may be an advantage in more ways than one: a new study suggests that bilinguals are speedier task-switchers than monolinguals.

Task-switching and its real-world applications

Task-switching—the ability to mentally “switch gears” and refocus on new goals—is a valuable skill that has numerous practical uses. You use it to shift attention from the wheel to the road while driving, or to switch gears between offense and defense in a team sport. Bilingualism has already been associated with a number of cognitive advantages, and now a 2010 study from Language and Cognition has investigated how bilingualism might enhance crucial task-switching skills in young adults.

This Carnegie Mellon University study recruited 88 college students, half of whom were monolingual and half of whom were bilingual. Both groups had about equal SAT scores, suggesting no inherent difference in cognitive ability.

Each participant sat in front of a screen with two different kinds of tasks assigned to each of their two hands. As cues appeared onscreen, one hand was responsible for identifying the color of the cue. The other hand was responsible for identifying the shape of the cue.

There were two aspects to this task-switching experiment: single-task trials and mixed-task trials. In single-task trials, participants identified either color or shape but never switched between the two tasks. In mixed-trial tasks, participants frequently switched between color and shape identification tasks—a more difficult procedure.

Researchers compared single-task and mixed-task reaction times to determine how reaction time and accuracy differed between groups and trial types.

Bilinguals were much faster than monolinguals on trials that required task-switching—their reactions were 6 milliseconds quicker on average. Both groups, however, were equally quick to respond on single-task trials, which did not involve switching.

Task-switching and executive control

This 2010 study contributes to a growing body of evidence suggesting that bilinguals enjoy enhanced executive control compared to monolinguals. Executive control refers to a combination of cognitive abilities—including task-switching—that help you make decisions, control impulses, and plan thoughtfully. It’s long been thought that constant management and monitoring of two languages improves executive control—a belief that this Carnegie Mellon study supports.

How you can improve your own task-switching

Regardless of how many languages you speak, there are plenty of other ways to enhance your own task-switching abilities and meet the varied demands of everyday life. Lumosity’s Brain Shift and Brain Shift Overdrive games train task-switching using an exercise similar to the one in the 2010 study. Or try Color Match to exercise impulse control. Unlock full access today to hone your skills!

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Source: ANAT PRIOR and BRIAN MACWHINNEY (2010). A bilingual advantage in task switching. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13, pp 253-262.  http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7397948

About Pam Zhang

Pam Zhang studied Creative Nonfiction Writing and Cognitive Science at Brown University (and a smattering of Egyptology too). All this has left her with an itch for unearthing all the weird and wonderful connections between our brains, our bodies, and our ideas of self. Now writing for Lumos Labs, she'd like to know what facets of neuroscience you want to read about!
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