Speaking two languages has many advantages, some of them unexpected. Beyond being able to expand our cultural and social universe, being bilingual has even been associated with an increase in gray matter at the brain level, probably because this learning stimulates the establishment of new neural connections.
In fact, there is no doubt that learning a new language reconfigures the functioning of our brain, even being a protective factor against neurodegenerative diseases. Now a new study revealed that bilingual people have a greater ability to divert their attention from one stimulus to another, compared to those who only speak their native language.
Attention is a complex cognitive function that not only demands a great deal of concentration but also the ability not to allow stimuli to distract us. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by the flight of a fly, we will lose concentration, we will likely make more mistakes and the task will become more difficult, in addition to consuming more time.
For that reason, the ability to block out irrelevant information while performing a task or solving a problem is essential. This ability is called interference resistance and, in a world that generates a veritable avalanche of stimuli – both digital and analogic – it is increasingly essential to maintain focus, be productive or simply connect with the person in front of us.
Researchers at the University of Florida analyzed differences between bilingual and monolingual people in attention control and the ability to ignore task-irrelevant information.
They designed a novel experiment in the area of Psycholinguistics to evaluate the participants’ abilities to manage incoming information and control their attention. Basically, people were faced with different situations in which objects changed color and moved up or down or to the right or left, so to give the correct answer, they had to ignore some of those factors.
Thus, they discovered that bilingual people were more effective at ignoring irrelevant data. And everything seems to indicate that they not only suppress or inhibit that information, which would imply a greater cognitive cost, but that they discard it. By pretending it doesn’t exist, your brain can focus on the activity at hand, without having to suffer for repressing content from consciousness.
Why do bilingual people ignore irrelevant information more effectively?
The explanation is simple: bilingual people are often forced to continually change languages, even within the framework of the same conversation to address different interlocutors. Therefore, they learn to divert their attention from the language they do not use and quickly switch.
For example, if someone who speaks English and Spanish is having a conversation in English, both languages are active in his brain, but Spanish is put “on hold,” ready to reactivate when necessary.
This kind of switch between one language and another allows them to develop greater resistance to interference, optimizing their ability to “attentionally disconnect.” That means that learning a second language transforms the way our brain works, making its processes more efficient.
deMeurisse, G. & Kaan, E. (2023) Bilingual attentional control: Evidence from the Partial Repetition Cost paradigm. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition; 1-11: 10.1017.