23 JULY 2015

'Mental Gymnastics' Part 1: Advantages of Learning Languages

'Mental Gymnastics' Part 1: Advantages of Learning Languages

Speaking more than one language is not at all uncommon. Indeed, some surveys suggest up to two thirds of the world’s population is bi- or multi-lingual (Crystal, 1997). Many of the social and professional advantages of bilingualism and multilingualism are recognised internationally, with the European Commission setting a target of each EU citizen speaking “their mother tongue and two or more languages”. In the UK, graduates with a degree in modern foreign languages are in a strong position in the job market.


In addition, recent research has identified new advantages of bilingualism – in cognition and health (see Bialystok et al., 2009 and Diamond, 2010). As the mainstream media are presenting these findings, bilingualism is emerging as a form of mental gymnastics that can boost thinking and reasoning skills and promote good health. But what exactly are these advantages? What is and what is not known about them? And how might they affect decisions on language learning at the personal level?

The first of the ‘new’ advantages of bilingualism concerns the impact on executive functions, a term which covers a range of cognitive skills related to attention, memory, and split-second decision-making. For example, it has been found that bilinguals are better at inhibiting irrelevant or conflicting information in studies in which participants have to name the colour of the font of a word, ignoring its meaning. Bilinguals are faster and more accurate at saying “red” in the critical trials where the meaning of the word interferes with the naming of the font colour (e.g. ‘blue’). Similar advantages are in tasks which measure the cost of adapting from one set of rules to another. For example, in the dimensional change card sort task, participants are required to group a set of objects of different shapes and different colours first according to one dimension (e.g. shape) and then to re-group them according to another dimension (e.g. colour). The task requires the flexibility to adopt a new rule and to inhibit the previous one. While most people are perfectly good at sorting items according to whichever rule they are given first, when the rule changes, there is often a slight delay in adapting to the new rule (and even accuracy errors for children). Bilinguals, however, perform better when required to adapt to the new rule.

Most recently, positive effects of bilingualism have been documented in terms of health. Research has shown that bilingualism delays the age at which the onset of dementia is detected (Alladi, Bak, et al., 2013). While the prevalence of dementia may not differ between bilinguals and monolinguals, bilingual patients showed the first signs of dementia over 4 years later on average than the monolingual ones. Bilingualism therefore seems to have a ‘protective’ effect on the brain, which may actually surpass the beneficial effects of the best drugs currently available. In a related but distinct front, other investigations are exploring the potentially protective effect of bilingualism in populations with atypically neurocognition, such as children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Reetzke, et al., 2015).

It seems fair to say that we have only started to understand the effect of learning two or more languages for the mind and the brain and further research may unveil a number of surprising findings.

Napoleon Katsos is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics of the University of Cambridge. He is a co-founder of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network, a group of researchers, teachers, clinicians and parents of bilingual children who aim to increase awareness about the benefits and challenges of bilingualism and to foster partnerships between the relevant stakeholders.



Alladi S., Bak, T.H., Duggirala, V., Surampudi, B., Shailaja, M., Shukla, A.K., Chaudhuri, J.R., & Kaul, S. (2013). Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. Neurology, 26;81(22), 1938-44

Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Green, D.W., & Gollan, T.H. (2009). Bilingual minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10, 89-129.

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, J. (2010). The Benefits of Multilingualism. Science, 330, 611-2.

Reetzke, R., Zou, X., Sheng, L., & Katsos, N. (2015). Communicative Development in Bilingually Exposed Chinese Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, doi: 10.1044/2015_JSLHR-L-13-0258.


Dr Napoleon Katsos is a Lecturer in the Department for Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (DTAL) at the University of Cambridge and writes for our Thought Leadership Blog. Read Napoleon's full career profile.