The Benefit of Bilingual Brains

As if you needed another reason to push human resources into hiring more bilingual employees, here’s another: Their brains focus better.

Viorica Marian, a Northwestern University professor of communication sciences and disorders, published a study last week that showed people who speak more than one language can filter out more distractions.

Here’s why: When speaking in one language, the bilingual brain has to subdue thoughts of the other language it knows. If I’m ordering at a bar in Rome, I have to ask “Un bicchiere di vino, per favore,” and suppress the words “A glass of wine, please.”

Of course, that’s a rudimentary example — I minored in Italian in college, but I’m far from being competent beyond being able to order food and booze. Now imagine having to suppress one word for every word you speak, which is exactly what people fluent in two or more languages have to do. They condition their brains to focus on one language at a time, which increases their ability to focus on one task at a time.

Viorica Marian
Viorica Marian, Northwestern University

Imagine what an organization could accomplish with a leadership pipeline filled with focused employees like these. In a global economy, bilingualism is imperative to conduct business in overseas markets. Now add the cognitive perks, which Marian said go beyond focus to also include more flexible decision-making and the ability to see from multiple perspectives.

Bilingualism isn’t that prevalent in the U.S. — the most recent data I could find from the 2007 U.S. census found only about 18 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home — so the talent pool for bilingual employees isn’t all that big. That said, young adults are being exposed to foreign language studies more and more in school, and Marian said just the process of learning another language has its advantages to the way the brain works.

“It’s a big thing to master, knowing that a house can be called a ‘house’ and be called a ‘casa’ and it still doesn’t change what you’re referring to,” she said. “Understanding that the item and its name are two different things is a high-level cognitive skill.”

That would explain why my sister, Bridget, said she sees definite improvement in the way she learns and works since becoming fluent in Spanish and starting to study French. For example, she said she can focus on reading and writing while listening to lyrical music because she’s used to having to tune out her own mental chatter.

“When you’re learning another language, you have to think very carefully when you speak because you have to translate in your head first,” she said. “For being bilingual, I can’t articulate very well why it makes you think differently, but it does.”

That’s what Marian’s research is for, I replied.

Bridget and I talked right after she heard that her French teacher switched up her oral exam format two days before the test. My sister seemed unfazed by the last-minute change, which seems to illustrate what Marian was talking about when it comes to the bilingual brain’s flexibility. Before she started learning Spanish and French, the situation would have put her in a stressed-out tailspin. Now she’s as cool as un cetriolo — that’s Italian for cucumber. Remember what I said about food and booze?

Bridget’s que-sera-sera mentality sums up Marian’s research perfectly: “Nothing you do to learn a foreign language won’t benefit you.”

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.