We’re always looking for little life hacks in hopes of improving the way our brain works. We’ve tried eating walnuts, solving one too many crossword puzzles, depleting our Sudoku collection, and reading countless stacks of books. Yet, despite all these little things, nothing we try really seems to amp up our brainwaves to any appreciable degree.
According to science, it’s learning a new language.
However, it’s not enough to simply pick up a few words of Spanish or French or Chinese to greet people and ask how they are. Only when we become truly fluent in another language–gaining the skills required to call ourselves bilingual–are we able to access the benefits of a second tongue.
According to studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, bilingualism can actually improve cognition–allowing us to more effectively manage higher cognitive processes like problem solving, memory, and thought. In fact, bilingualism increases turnover time for cognitive processes; it lets us think more quickly on our feet and formulate better reactions in response to outside stimuli.
In terms of memory, bilinguals naturally have a much greater ability to recall events that occur. They are, in general, better at eliminating superfluous information, homing in on important details and facts, and paying attention in general–whether the tasks are related to language or not. This has been speculated to be a consequence of needing to tune out “interference” from other languages when speaking in one.
Bialystok took these studies further and proved that these advantages continue long into older age, even acting as factors to aid in preventing dementia. Older people who participated in the study were able to demonstrate faster reaction and better memory overall–huge advantages in warding off mental illnesses that accompany progressive, age-linked diseases.
Being bilingual also ultimately affects the actual physicality of the brain. It increases gray matter–the stuff responsible for processing incoming information and intellectual activity.
So, next time you’re looking to up your brainpower, open up that dusty Rosetta Stone software in lieu of grabbing a handful of walnuts. The management of speaking two languages, as it turns out, directly affects our brain in more ways than we could have ever imagined.