Researchers have found that proficiency in a second language not only increases the amount of gray matter in the brain, but also has positive “spillover effects” on other areas of the brain. For example, learning a second language strengthens the brain’s executive functions even outside of language-related contexts. Executive functions include cognitive tasks such as focusing attention, switching between tasks, and inhibiting impulses. Accordingly, bilingual and multilingual people show improved listening and attention abilities. This means that people who know more than one language may be better able to process and remember new information.
Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok says that bilinguals show an improvement in certain brain functions. Bilinguals are better able to pay attention, organize, plan and switch focus than monolinguals.
These benefits apply regardless of the learner’s age; anyone from infants to the elderly can benefit from language learning. In adults and the elderly, bilingualism can fend off the decay of cognitive functions. Researchers have also found that speaking more than one language can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
There are more than just health benefits of learning a language, of course. Investing the time and commitment necessary to seriously study a language can also provide considerable economic and social benefits. But we’re happy to take the mental boost, too.