What Speaking Multiple Languages Does To The Brain

The benefits of speaking multiple languages can be seen in the brain, according to a South Korean study of young children.

AsianScientist (Nov. 30, 2021) – If your parents made you speak more than one language when you were young, now’s the time to thank them.

New research from South Korea suggests that using multiple languages at an early age may enhance memory and alter communication between regions across the entire brain.

Using even one language is a considerable task, involving a wide range of cognitive functions and brain regions, and being multilingual requires the engagement of executive functions that use the entire brain. However, it remained uncertain whether multilingualism improves cognitive abilities, and relatively little is known about how it affects the brain.

To gauge the effects of using more than one language, a team of researchers from Yale University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology analyzed behavioral data from 1,075 children between the ages of 9 and 10 years old from 21 states in the US.

“Given that the developmental stage is a critical period undergoing massive behavioral and neuronal changes, the narrow age range allows us to capture monolingual and multilingual children’s representative behavior and neuronal features at the very precise time of the developmental stage, which is a great benefit of our study,” the researchers wrote.

Their research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that children who spoke multiple languages performed better on memory tasks than children who only spoke one.

Looking at the brain scans of 335 children from the study, they discovered that multilingual children displayed differences in the whole-brain functional connectome, the patterns of correlated activity between regions spanning the brain, both at rest and when performing a memory task.

“This implies that the multilingual experience reliably modulates and is reflected in the intrinsic functional connectome at the developmental period,” wrote the researchers. “Considering that the children are 9 and 10 years old, it is interesting that even such a short language experience causes a difference in functional connectome.”

These brain differences were so apparent that a machine-learning algorithm trained on whole-brain functional connectivity was able to distinguished multilingual from monolingual children with an accuracy of around 81 percent. Another computational model managed to predict memory scores for multilingual based on their whole-brain functional connectivity.

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that using multiple languages at an early age has tangible effects on memory and brain connectivity.

The article can be found at: Kwon et al. (2021) Predicting multilingual effects on executive function and individual connectomes in children: An ABCD study.


Source: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist