Study: Want Smarter Children? Try Raising Them Bilingual!

By Roi Mitteiler, NoCamels May 04, 2014 Comments

Fluency in two languages, or bilingualism, substantially contributes to mental dexterity and the ability to rapidly skip between different cognitive mind sets and challenges, according to new research out of the University of Haifa.

“The lifelong experience of bilinguals, characterized by the constant shifting between languages, may explain their noted advantage of cognitive flexibility,” says Professor Rafiq Ibrahim of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center of his and his research team’s findings, recently published in the journal “Psychology.”

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Prior research on bilingualism has revealed that a balanced control over two languages enhances certain cognitive functions, especially the perceptive and idea-forming abilities in children. In the current study, the researchers sought to discover whether bilingualism among adults could lend itself to cognitive agility— the ability to create complex ideas, solutions to problems, or reactive thoughts, and quickly move between these sets of thoughts independently.

Bilinguals are more spontaneous, mentally at least

In order to examine their hypothesis, the team created two groups of research participants. One was a group of adult bilinguals who spoke Hebrew and English fluently at the same level, consisting mostly of Israelis who grew up in English-speaking homes or who immigrated to Israel at a young age. The second group was compiled of Israelis with a moderate level of English learned in school. The participants were presented with a series of tests aimed at determining the differences in the cognitive flexibility of the two groups.

The results of the study indicated that people who are bilingual have higher levels of cognitive flexibility, particularly spontaneous cognitive flexibility, or the ability to quickly and independently move between idea sets. The group of researchers then analyzed the test results statistically, confirming that the major difference between those who are fluent in two as opposed to only one language is their level of spontaneous cognitive flexibility, which gives the bilingual individual the upper hand mentally.

Don’t rush into learning a second language

“The findings of our study shed further light on the significance and added benefits of being bilingual, especially that those who spoke two languages fluently have more spontaneous cognitive agility, which is a higher level of cognitive activity. Our study clearly indicates that being bilingual has a notable impact in improving this ability,” Ibrahim concluded.

This study,  conducted by Professors Ibrahim and David Sher, together with Reut Shoshani and Anat Prior,  is only one in a series being conducted at the Safra Center aimed at directly measuring cognitive and brain activity in order to ascertain a relationship between bilingualism and certain cognitive functions.

Before you rush out to start learning a second language, it is important to remember that the majority of bilingual individuals have been so since birth and that there a number of simpler ways to improve your cognitive agility, like solving crossword puzzles for instance!

Photo: US Department of Education

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