How Bilingualism Can Affect Your Brain
Speaking multiple languages may be an advantage in more ways than one: a new study suggests that bilinguals are speedier task-switchers than monolinguals.
Task-switching and its real-world applications
Task-switching—the ability to mentally “switch gears” and refocus on new goals—is a valuable skill that has numerous practical uses. You use it to shift attention from the wheel to the road while driving, or to switch gears between offense and defense in a team sport. Bilingualism has already been associated with a number of cognitive advantages, and now a 2010 study from Language and Cognition has investigated how bilingualism might enhance crucial task-switching skills in young adults.
This Carnegie Mellon University study recruited 88 college students, half of whom were monolingual and half of whom were bilingual. Both groups had about equal SAT scores, suggesting no inherent difference in cognitive ability.
Each participant sat in front of a screen with two different kinds of tasks assigned to each of their two hands. As cues appeared onscreen, one hand was responsible for identifying the color of the cue. The other hand was responsible for identifying the shape of the cue.
There were two aspects to this task-switching experiment: single-task trials and mixed-task trials. In single-task trials, participants identified either color or shape but never switched between the two tasks. In mixed-trial tasks, participants frequently switched between color and shape identification tasks—a more difficult procedure.
Researchers compared single-task and mixed-task reaction times to determine how reaction time and accuracy differed between groups and trial types.
Bilinguals were much faster than monolinguals on trials that required task-switching—their reactions were 6 milliseconds quicker on average. Both groups, however, were equally quick to respond on single-task trials, which did not involve switching.