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3 min read
Lea Mitchell
October 12, 2023
Reading time
3 min read

The cognitive benefits of learning English in a bilingual society

Learning English grants access to a spectrum of communication possibilities, but it also provides us with cognitive enhancements that might surprise you . . .
The cognitive benefits of learning English in a bilingual society

The cognitive benefits of learning English in a bilingual society

In a multifaceted bilingual community, mastering English goes beyond the triumph of language acquisition. Scratch beneath the surface, and you'll discover a treasure trove of cognitive perks that come with being bilingual.

Undoubtedly, embarking on the journey of learning English grants access to a spectrum of communication possibilities, but it also provides us with cognitive enhancements that might surprise you. So, let’s take a closer look at some of these impressive benefits.

Enhanced cognitive skills

The journey of English learning in a bilingual society positively influences various cognitive skills. For starters, it markedly improves problem-solving abilities. Navigating through two languages demands the mental agility to switch between linguistic structures, which sharpens our problem-solving skills, almost like a daily mental workout.

When a bilingual person hears or uses a word in one language, their brain is also thinking about it in their other language. Think of it like your brain hearing parts of a word and trying to guess what the whole word is. For example, if someone hears "can", their mind might also think of similar words like "candy" and "candle".

For people who speak two languages, this happens in both languages at the same time, even if they are only using one. So, they’re not just thinking in one language; the other one is always subtly there, helping them understand and communicate better.

This duality of language also bolsters the ability to multitask. Managing two languages concurrently trains the mind to juggle multiple tasks efficiently.

Person multitasking

Furthermore, creativity gets a significant boost. Being bilingual means exposure to different cultures, idioms, and expressions, widening the learner’s perspective and enhancing their ability to think outside the box.

Brain plasticity and cognitive adaptability

One of the standout cognitive benefits bilingualism offers is increased brain plasticity. Engaging with English as a second language in a bilingual society supports cognitive development and adaptability. This heightened plasticity means the brain is better at forming new neural connections, essential for learning and memory.

Cognitive flexibility is also positively affected. The bilingual mind becomes adept at adjusting to new information and shifting between different tasks, promoting a more adaptable and open-minded approach to the various challenges life throws our way.

Moreover, learning a second language, like English, enhances attention and focus. With the need to filter out irrelevant linguistic input, bilingual individuals often develop superior concentration skills, proving invaluable in both academic and professional settings.

A study found that bilingual toddlers were better at certain tests than toddlers who only spoke one language. In these tests, the toddlers had to change the way they thought about size and shapes, ignoring the usual rules they might follow. For example, they first had to put small blocks in small buckets and big blocks in big buckets, then switch and put big blocks in small buckets and vice versa.

They also had to identify small fruits inside big fruits, even though they might normally just pay attention to the big fruit. Bilingual toddlers were better at this because they were used to switching between languages and ignoring information from one language when they use the other. So, their brains are already trained to focus on specific information while ignoring others, helping them do better at these tests.

Smart toddler

Cognitive health and long-term advantages

The perks of being bilingual extend well into the twilight years, contributing significantly to cognitive health. Engaging with English and another language can delay cognitive decline, keeping the mind sharper for longer.

Research suggests that bilingualism may even reduce the risk of dementia and other age-related cognitive challenges. The continuous mental exercise of using two languages seems to fortify the brain, providing a kind of cognitive reserve that protects against mental decline.

Bilingual vs monolingual brain
"Bilingual aging: preserving brain regions and enhancing connectivity for cognitive resilience" by Research Gate, Recolored from original

The term “brain reserve” or “cognitive reserve” refers to the brain's ability to keep working well even as it gets older or faces health challenges. Being bilingual is thought to be an activity that contributes to this reserve, just like getting good education, having a stimulating job, being socially active, or staying physically fit. In other words, speaking two languages can be a kind of exercise for your brain that helps it stay sharp, just like puzzles or physical exercise.

Moreover, these cognitive advantages play a pivotal role in academic and professional success. The enhanced focus, memory, and multitasking skills that come with bilingualism are invaluable assets in studies and work, paving the way for a successful and mentally robust life.

Embarking on the English learning adventure in a bilingual society is not merely about acquiring a new language. It's also a journey of cognitive enhancement and mental discovery. Improved problem-solving, creativity, and better attention/focus, along with long-term cognitive health benefits, make learning English in a bilingual context a gift that keeps on giving.

As we celebrate the joy of learning and the beauty of languages, let’s also appreciate the subtle, powerful ways in which engaging with English in a bilingual society contributes to our cognitive development and well-being. Happy learning!