We live in a world of distractions. Everyday in every way, something clamours for our attention. It’s no wonder we lose track of our thoughts and the things we are doing. So how can we train ourselves to better resist these distractions and stay on task?
Brain researchers who study bilingualism believe that the act of juggling two languages strengthens the brain system that helps people pay attention. That strong capacity to focus might be what leads to better academic performance in some children who grow up bilingual or attend language immersion programs.
In an Eriksen flanker task – which measures a person’s attention and ability to screen out unwanted stimuli – they found that Bilingual people generally perform better than monolinguals. This is because bilinguals are better at tuning out the noise. The theory is that bilingual brains may have a stronger “executive control” system because of the constant need to switch between languages. This has been likened to frequent and regular brain exercise because we are constantly using language to speak, to read and to think. So even though other cognitive activities, like practicing music and performing mathematical calculations may be just as effective, they lose out in terms of the amount of time we spend practicing those activities.
“Everything that we do that requires focused, selective attention — ignoring salient distractors that are trying to compete for attention, shifting between two things that we are trying to do at the same time, manipulating information — that is all frontal lobe, executive function stuff.” – Ellen Bialystok, Canadian psychologist at York University in Toronto.
This strong executive control system may give bilingual individuals an edge in today’s world of distractions. Bilingualism may also provide some protection for the brains of aging people as studies have shown that the onset of dementia in bilingual people occur later. The executive control system (higher brain function) is the last system in the brain to be fully developed and the first one to decline. Strengthening it with the cognitive practice of speaking multiple languages may help to slow that decline.
Bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity. – The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual
It should also be noted that the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life. Looks like there is still hope for us aged monolinguals after all…