Are Bilinguals Smarter than Monolinguals?

Nyma E., senior reporter

Forty-three percent of the world’s population can speak two languages fluently. Bilingualism presents obvious benefits, such as being able to communicate with many more people. However, does being bilingual actually make one smarter? Bilingual people have a stronger executive function which results in a heightened ability to switch between tasks, a more efficient monitoring system, and a heightened cognitive ability. Adults aren’t the only ones who experience these benefits; infants, children, and the elderly can benefit as well.

The brain’s executive function helps one plan, focus, remember instructions and multitask. Bilingual people have a stronger executive function compared to a monolingual person. People who speak more than one language have to frequently switch between tasks, or in this case, languages. This, in turn, strengthens their executive function and makes it easier for bilingual people when they need to do tasks that require their executive function. According to Alexandra Ossola, “Executive function can help people do a lot of things that may make them seem smarter, such as doing more things at once and canceling out distractions.” Although this doesn’t necessarily show that bilingual people are more intelligent or “smarter” than monolingual people, it does show that they possess a stronger executive function.

Bilingual people have a heightened ability to monitor their environment, which results in more efficient monitoring systems. People that speak more than one language often have to switch between languages. This means that they often have to suppress one language when talking in another language. This helps bilingual and polylingual people suppress irrelevant information. Ellen Bialystock, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto said, “The monolingual will look at that animal and say, ‘dog’. But to a bilingual, two alternatives present themselves. That means that bilinguals are always having to make a decision that monolinguals just don’t have to make”. This will also improve the brain’s executive function. A 2009 study showed that bilinguals performed better than monolinguals when exposed to situations that required that high-monitoring skills. Bilinguals also performed better in spatial-working memory tasks. Spatial-working memory is responsible for spatial orientation and the recording of information about one’s environment.

         Many people think that when children learn to speak two languages it damages their cognitive growth; this is simply not true. Although there is evidence that shows that sometimes one language can obstruct another language when a child is talking, there are benefits for bilingual children. According to Yudhijit Bhattachargee, a writer for the New York Times, “this interference [between the two languages], researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.” This shows that although bilingual children might have trouble in their first years of speaking, the long-term benefits of bilingualism outweigh those troubles. A 2004 study showed that bilingual preschoolers were better able to solve mental puzzles and switch between tasks than their monolingual classmates.

Infants and the elderly can also benefit from bilingualism. A study that was taken at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy compared seven-month-old infants that had been exposed to more than one language to seven-month-old infants that had only been exposed to one language. The study revealed that the seven-month-old infants that had been exposed to more than one language were better able to switch between tasks. Bilingualism can also benefit the elderly. A study taken at the University of California in San Diego showed that the more fluent someone was in a second language, the more resistant they were to onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. This is likely because they have a stronger executive function, therefore they are better able to remember things.

Bilingual people have a unique way of viewing the world and their surroundings. Some languages can give insight into a specific culture. Also, bilingualism can give someone more creativity, which can result in someone “viewing” the world in a different way. A person that can speak more than one language is also better able to communicate with people that speak said language, so they are better able to understand that culture. This can make bilinguals and people who are polylingual more empathetic and better able to understand other people. 

Bilingualism and polylingualism present obvious benefits, but it is often wondered if speaking more than one language can actually make one smarter. Although bilingual people are not necessarily “smarter” or more intelligent than monolingual people, they do have a stronger executive function which results in a better ability to switch between tasks, they also have more efficient monitoring systems and a heightened cognitive ability. The benefits of bilingualism are not only felt by adults, but the elderly and infants can also be benefitted. In addition to this, bilingual people have a different way of viewing the world.

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