A multilingual brain is a smarter brain - International Institute

A multilingual brain is a smarter
brain: recent findings from
neuroscience and implications for
Dara Ghahremani, PhD
Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
[email protected]
• What do they do that’s different from
– Attend to the appropriate language in the context
at hand
– Ignore the irrelevant language for that context
– Sometimes: rapid switching between languages
The Multilingual Brain
• How different is it from the monolingual
• What behavioral differences are there?
• What are the implications
for education?
Brain areas important for language
What’s different about multi-lingual
Abutalebi et al., 2013
Additional brain regions are used for
second language
Cognitive benefits of multilingualism
• Attention:
– Conflict resolution
– Task switching
• Enhanced auditory perception
• Short-term memory
Cognitive benefits of multilingualism:
• Better at resolving conflict in the “Attention
Networks Task”
– Task: indicate direction of central arrow
Because other arrows
are in opposite direction,
they create interference
and slow down the
response. Conflict
resolution abilities are
Late vs. Early L2 Learners
Tao et al study (2011) of L2 English learners in Australia.
3 groups:
- English monolinguals
- English-Chinese Bilinguals (early learners)
- English-Chinese Bilinguals (late learners, > 12 years old)
– Early learners show greater conflict resolution ability than
– Late learners show even stronger skills than early learners
Attention can improve even when learning at
later stages of development
Brain differences in resolving conflict
Anterior Cingulate Cortex shows
more efficient responding
(less response to conflict)
Abutalebi et al., 2012
Cognitive benefits of multilingualism:
task switching
• Task switching tests measure how efficiently
people can shift between different tasks (or
Example of task-switching test
Shape blocks: indicate whether triangle or
Color block: indicate whether blue or red
Switch blocks: mix of color and shape
trials (need to switch between the shape
and color tasks)
People are slower during the Switch blocks
than the others because of switching
between two different tasks
Gold, et al. 2013
Task switching in multilinguals
• More daily language switching (FinishSwedish) leads to better ability to switch
between tasks (Soveri et al., 2011)
• Older bilinguals show preserved task switching
(Gold et al., 2013) – (see next slides)
Older lifelong bilingual adults:
- more efficient switching than older
monolingual adults.
- similar brain response to young
Older (avg. of 65 years)
Young (avg. of 32 years)
Gold, et al. 2013
Enhanced sustained attention to
auditory information
Krisman, et al. 2013
Enhanced short-term memory in
bilingual children (5-7 years old)
Morales, et al. 2013
Implications for education and
cognitive development
• Multi-lingual learning can enhance cognitive
• Heritage language learners are already primed
to have a cognitive advantage due to existing
• Benefits for academic performance and
communication skills
• Perhaps protective against
ADHD and similar attention
• Multilinguals show enhanced attention,
mental flexibility, auditory
perception/attention, and memory
• Even in older age, we can see these
advantages reflected in the brain
• Learning multiple languages can only promote
better learning and brain development
Abutalebi, J., Della Rosa, P. A., Green, D. W., Hernandez, M., Scifo, P., Keim, R., . . .
Costa, A. (2012). Bilingualism tunes the anterior cingulate cortex for conflict
monitoring. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991), 22(9), 2076-2086. doi:
Christoffels, I. K., Kroll, J. F., & Bajo, M. T. (2013). Introduction to bilingualism and
cognitive control. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 199-199. doi:
Gold, B. T., Kim, C., Johnson, N. F., Kryscio, R. J., & Smith, C. D. (2013). Lifelong
bilingualism maintains neural efficiency for cognitive control in aging. The Journal
of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(2), 387396. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.3837-12.2013
Morales, J., Calvo, A., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Working memory development in
monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of experimental child psychology,
114(2), 187-202. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.09.002
Soveri, A., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., & Laine, M. (2011). Is There a Relationship
between Language Switching and Executive Functions in Bilingualism? Introducing
a within group Analysis Approach. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 183-183. doi:
Tao, L., Marzecová, A., Taft, M., Asanowicz, D., & Wodniecka, Z. (2011). The
efficiency of attentional networks in early and late bilinguals: the role of age of
acquisition. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 123-123. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00123

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