A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles has revealed that the ability to speak multiple languages is associated with better mental capacities.
"Being able to use two languages and never knowing which one you're going to use right now rewires your brain," Discovery News quoted Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Canada, whose work has been cited by Jared Diamond of the University of California in his article.
Diamond began wondering about the effects on the brain of multilingualism while camping with New Guinea Highlanders, all of whom could speak between five and 15 languages.
"The question is: Would it be the case that bilinguals, by the constant need for controlling the two languages, develop a more efficient executive functioning system?" said Albert Costa, who studies bilingualism at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.
"The results suggest that bilinguals may have this positive collateral effect,” he added. He said that executive functioning is worse when you go to kids and older people.
Bialystok also added that bilinguals fare better at multitasking tasks, including ones that simulated driving and talking on a phone.
However, being able to speak more than one language comes at a cost, she said. “Bilinguals have more ''tip-of-the-tongue'' problems," Bialystock said.
“Bilingual children have on average a smaller vocabulary in each of their languages than monolingual children," she added.
In one real-world application, Bialystock's recent work shows that multilingualism can provide health benefits to Alzheimer's patients. "They show symptoms of the disease up to four years later than monolinguals. Once the disease starts to destroy areas of the brain, bilinguals are able to keep functioning," Bialystock said.
While Costa said that the findings on Alzheimer's patients should be taken cautiously, he agreed that there are social benefits to be had from better accommodation of bilingualism in an increasingly international world.
The article appears today in the journal Science.