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Learning a language can boost brain power

1st May 2012

Researchers in the United States have come up with the first biological evidence of the impact of being able to speak more than one language on the brain.

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Bilingualism fine-tunes the brain's auditory processing system and also boosts a person's ability to sort out different linguistic input, with benefits for their capacity for attention and working memory.

A team led by Viorica Marian of Northwestern University worked alongside auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus in an attempt to find out exactly how being bilingual affects the brain.

They targeted subcortical auditory regions in particular, because these are typically bathed with input from areas of the brain linked to cognition, or abstract thought.

In previous studies Kraus had worked on, researchers had already found that lifelong music training enhances language processing, and they wanted to examine the relationship between the two in more depth.

Marian, who is a professor of communication sciences, said the team wanted to know whether bilingualism would have a similar effect on brain processing.

The changes involved in the way sound is encoded in the brainstem, the part of the brain that evolved the longest time ago, and were caused by the person's life experience, rather than genetic factors.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers concluded that the experience of bilingualism did in fact rewrite the way that the brain and nervous system respond to sound.

Marian said that the benefits of bilingualism included an ability to pay closer attention to sound, to filter out unwanted sounds amid a hubbub, and to encode sound in the brain.

Kraus said that bilingualism was a form of brain enrichment, and had "real consequences" for a person's executive function, capacity for attention and working memory.

The team now plans to investigate whether or not people who acquire a language later in life get the same benefits.

Among a group of teenagers, some of whom were bilingual in English and Spanish, and some of whom spoke only English, researchers recorded brain stem responses to complex soundscapes.

The brains of the bilingual students were better at encoding the frequency of speech sounds and grouping sounds together in a meaningful way. They were also better able to pay close attention to sounds against a noisy background.

Kraus speculated that the benefits came from the constant need of bilingual people to "re-tune" their auditory attention when switching from once language to another.

Marian said that bilingual people were "natural jugglers" and were better able to pay closer attention to relevant sounds and ignore irrelevant sounds.

The study shows that people with musical or linguistic abilities may have an enhanced ability to merge their sensory experience with their mental processes, the researchers concluded.

 

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