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Reading this, you are participating in one of humanity's greatest achievements, language. Indeed, most other achievements would not have been possible if it wasn't for this complex communication system that infants learn with ease. And to top it all, some of us do this in several languages! So, what's the story with bilingualism and how does speaking multiple languages shape us?

All experiences leave a mark on our brain: short, intensive experiences like juggling, or long-lasting experiences like our career paths, have dramatic effects on our brain structure. Bilingualism is an intense and long-lasting experience that shapes the human mind.

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Who Are Bilinguals?

Bilinguals learn two languages simultaneously during infancy and childhood. Balanced bilingualism means being equally skilled in two languages; yet this is a rare scenario. For most bilinguals, one language is dominant in particular contexts, while the other is dominant in others; e.g. a child who speaks German at school and Arabic at home could have better literary skills in German, but may feel more comfortable talking about her feelings in Arabic.

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Is it hard for children to learn two languages at once?

  • Bilingual infants learn their two languages at more or less the same pace as monolingual infants learn one language. They learn words in both languages with ease and achieve linguistic milestones similarly to monolinguals. Bilinguals do tend to have a somewhat smaller vocabulary in each language (because they usually hear less of it compared to monolingual kids) 

  • Bilinguals keep their two languages separated from early on and do not confuse them. They will notice if you switch languages in the middle of the sentence.

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Me and my wife speak different languages, but we are fluent in both. What language should we speak to our children if we want them to learn the two languages?

You should speak the language(s) you feel most "at-home" in. This will allow you to interact with your child with ease. The language skills your child develops in a specific language will depend on the quality and quantity of the input they receive in that language. 

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I learned some Spanish while travelling. I want my child to become bilingual – should I speak Spanish to her?

It is better to Speak to your child the language you are most comfortable with. You can teach her other languages later.

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How Does Bilingualism Shape Our Mind?

EXECUTIVE CONTROL is "the ability to carry out goal-directed behavior using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities". Simply, this means choosing one behavior over another, focusing attention and planning ahead, among other things.

For bilinguals, both languages are always somewhat active, even in completely monolingual contexts. Bilinguals are constantly engaged in language switching or language control, which means they are managing attention to two competing languages. 

When inhibiting one language and using the other, bilinguals engage in selective attention, which is the ability to focus on the relevant information. When switching languages, bilinguals activate brain regions normally used for executive function, giving these areas lots of practice. This leads to higher levels of mental flexibility, which is the ability to adapt to ongoing changes and process information efficiently. 

This greater flexibility can be seen in bilinguals’ performance on a classic task of executive control: the Stroop color-naming task.

Experiment (Bialystok et al 2008)

Monolinguals and bilinguals had to complete a task that included a number of conditions – first, two control conditions: 

  • reading the names of colors, written in black ink: Blue Red Green Yellow

  • naming colors, from ink blobs:  

For these conditions, no difference in response time was found between monolinguals and bilinguals.

        congruent condition

red    green    blue    orange  

      incongruent condition

red    black    yellow    purple

Then, participants were presented with the Stroop task, in which they were asked to name the ink color rather than the color name in two conditions:


The Stroop effect was calculated as the additional time each participant needed to name the ink color when there was a mismatch.

Both young and old bilinguals required significantly less time to resolve the conflict from the competing color name, than did the monolinguals. They were better at suppressing the irrelevant information in the written word. 

Results from this experiment and others demonstrate that the constant use of two languages by bilinguals leads to changes in the configuration of the executive control network and results in more efficient performance on executive control tasks, even those that are completely nonverbal. 

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As we age, we experience an inevitable decline in cognitive skills such as memory, problem-solving and language. Lifelong bilingualism has a protective effect: it delays the onset of symptoms of dementia by creating cognitive reserves. This may be the result of compensatory use of alternative brain regions and enhanced neural plasticity. In a study conducted in Canada on 184 patients referred to a Memory Clinique with cognitive complaints, bilingual patients exhibited a delay of about 4 years in the onset of dementia symptoms compared to monolinguals. Importantly, these results were obtained from bilinguals who have used both of their languages regularly for most of their lives.  

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Bilingual children are exposed from infancy to the idea that most concepts have two different words – one for each of the languages they know. If both dog and kelev refer to that fluffy, barking creature on the carpet, then the sound combination we produce to refer to it cannot be something inherent to the creature itself, can it? Learning two different labels for the same object clarifies the arbitrary relation between objects and their names. This early understanding allows bilinguals to switch more easily between perspectives, develop abstract and symbolic reasoning, and generate greater creativity and creative thinking.

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Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207-245.

Bialystok, E. (2007). Cognitive effects of bilingualism: How linguistic experience leads to cognitive change. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(3), 210-223.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45(2), 459-464.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2008). Cognitive control and lexical access in younger and older bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, memory, and cognition, 34(4), 859.

Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: the benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 229.

Byers-Heinlein, K., Morin-Lessard, E., & Lew-Williams, C. (2017). Bilingual infants control their languages as they listen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(34), 9032-9037.

Maher, J. C. (2017). Multilingualism: a very short introduction (Vol. 525). Oxford University Press.

Ramírez‐Esparza, N., García‐Sierra, A., & Kuhl, P. K. (2017). The impact of early social interactions on later language development in Spanish–English bilingual infants. Child development, 88(4), 1216-1234.

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