29 JULY 2015

'Mental Gymnastics' Part 2: Directions for Future Research

'Mental Gymnastics' Part 2: Directions for Future Research

Recent research highlights a number of positive effects for the mind and brain from learning languages. However a number of questions are still unanswered. A key issue is what is at the root of these advantages? A leading theory in the field postulates that in the bilingual brain both languages are always active. Compared to the monolingual, the bilingual brain needs to monitor which language is more appropriate in specific communicative situations, and to activate it while suppressing the irrelevant one – with the possibility of switching languages in the next moment, when turning to address a different individual. It is this form of ‘mental exercise’ that provides the brain with critical stimulation that leads to the cognitive and health advantages. While this theory goes a long way towards explaining the advantages observed in children and adults, it is challenged by findings that even pre-verbal infants exposed to two languages seem to outperform infants exposed to just one language in certain attention tasks. The search for a comprehensive understanding of bilingualism is still on.

Research on bilingualism has come a long way and knowledge is available discussing the knowns in the research. Of course, talking of ‘bilinguals’ means making an abstraction. Some people are born into a bilingual environment; some are exposed to an additional language early on in life, either in the community or formal education, while others may decide to learn an additional language during adulthood for a multitude of reasons. Individual differences in the amount of input people receive in each language, the type of input (formal education or naturalistic), their motivation, their cognitive profile and other factors contribute towards creating a unique experience of bilingualism for each learner. Research has just recently started to explore whether and how these factors affect the appearance of a bilingual advantage in cognition (see Bialystok, et al., 2009; among others). The news though is already encouraging: a study has found that people who take up the intensive study of a new language in adulthood seem to show similar effects to those exhibited by people exposed to two languages from birth (Vega-Mendoza, et al., 2015). So, it may be ‘never too late’ to enjoy the bilingual advantages.

Moreover, considerations of ‘language status’ that change over time and currently favour some of the widely used languages (such as English, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese) are in fact irrelevant when it comes to unlocking the potential of bilingualism. Research has consistently shown that any combination of languages will lead to the cognitive and health advantages of bilingualism, and indeed even combinations of dialects will do so (Antoniou, et al., 2014).

Bilingualism is a precious gift, and it implies a commitment on behalf of the individual, their family and the education systems. Becoming bilingual requires planning, resources and dedication. But recent research is showing us the fascinating ways in which this commitment pays off in the life of the mind.

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.



Antoniou, K., Katsos, N., Grohmann, K., & Kambanaros, M. (2014). Is bilectalism similar to bilingualism? An investigation into children’s vocabulary and executive control skills. In W.Orman & M., J. Valleau (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 12-24). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

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

Vega-Mendoza, M., West, H., Sorace, A. & Bak, T.H. (2015). The impact of late, non-balanced bilingualism on cognitive performance. Cognition, 137, 40–46


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.