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Attention: Why Speaking Two Languages Is Better Than One

May 23, 2012

This is a very interesting article that we would like to share with you:

Attention: Why Speaking Two Languages Is Better Than One By ROBERT LEE HOTZ

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 learning more than one language might cause structural differences in brain networks that enhance mental abilities, 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 speech sounds, compared with those who speak a one language. Bilingual people do this in ways that make them 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 also to 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,” said Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern, who was part of the study team. “You are a mental juggler.”

In the study, Dr. Kraus and her colleagues tested the involuntary neural responses to speech sounds by comparing brain signals of 23 high-school students who were fluent in English and Spanish to those of 25 teenagers who only spoke English. When it was quiet, both groups could hear the test syllable—”da”—with no trouble, but when there was background noise, the brains of the bilingual students were significantly better at detecting the fundamental frequency of speech sounds.

“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Dr. Kraus said.

Through this fine-tuning of the nervous system, people who can master more than one language are building a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities, and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age, a range of recent studies suggest.

Indeed, some preliminary research suggests that people who speak a second language may have enhanced defenses against the onset of dementia and delay Alzheimer’s disease by an average of four years.

The ability to speak more than one language also may help protect memory, researchers from the Center for Health Studies in Luxembourg reported at last year.

After studying older people who spoke multiple languages, they concluded that the more languages someone could speak, the better: People who spoke three languages were three times less likely to have cognitive problems compared with bilingual people, for example.

And new research suggests that babies have little trouble developing bilingual skills. Researchers at the University of British Columbia reported that babies raised in a bilingual family show from birth a preference for each of the native languages they heard while still in the womb, and can distinguish between them.

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