The ability to speak two languages can make bilingual people better able to pay attention than those who can only speak one language, a new study suggests.
Scientists have long suspected that some enhanced mental abilities might be tied to structural differences in brain networks shaped by learning more than one language, just as a musician’s brain can be altered by the long hours of practice needed to master an instrument.
Now, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Northwestern University for the first time have documented differences in how the bilingual brain processes the sounds of speech, compared with those who speak a single language, in ways that make it better at picking out a spoken syllable, even when it is buried in a babble of voices.
That biological difference in the auditory nervous system appears to also enhance attention and working memory among those who speak more than one language, they say.
“Because you have two languages going on in your head, you become very good at determining what is and is not relevant,” says Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern, who was part of the study team. “You are a mental juggler.”