Adults who grew up speaking two different languages can shift their attention between different tasks quicker than those who pick up a second language later in life, according to a new study. This is just one of many cognitive benefits of being bilingual.
Research has shown that bilingual kids are constantly switching between two languages in their brain, which increases "cognitive flexibility," the ability to switch between thinking about different concepts or multiple concepts at once, and "selective attention abilities," the mental process of focusing on one task or object at a time.
Other studies have shown that bilingual children can complete mental puzzles quicker and more efficiently than those who only speak one language. The reason? Speaking two languages requires "executive functioning," which are higher-level cognitive skills like planning, decision making, problem solving and organization. Basically, this task is a workout for the brain.
In the new study, bilingual adults participated in an experiment that required watching pictures on a screen that gradually shifted and noting the changes. The adults who started speaking a second language as an infant were able to notice the changes much quicker than those who learned another language later in life.
Bilingual kids have to "take advantage of multiple sources of visual information, such as mouth movements, facial expressions, and subtle gestures," when they're raised in a more complex language environment, Dean D'Souza, study author and psychology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University said in a release.
"Infants from bilingual homes adapt to their more complex language environment by sampling more of their visual environment and placing more weight on novel information," the study authors wrote.
When children learn a second language at a young age (between 0 and 3), their brains are more plastic, which makes it easier.
It's significant that the mental benefits of starting a new language early appear to last even as children grow into adulthood, D'Souza said in the release.
If you are monolingual, but are hoping to teach your children another language, there are ways to introduce it in your home. For example, singing and listening to music in another language, watching educational language TV shows and taking language classes are all opportunities to introduce kids to other languages, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.