Researcher offers brief essay on bilingualism's benefits to the brain

June 02, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- Judith Kroll, distinguished professor of psychology, linguistics and women's studies and director of Penn State's Center for Language Science (CLS), has published numerous articles on the cognitive processes that underlie language, communication and bilingualism.

Today (June 2) in a syndicated public radio series, "Academic Minute," she offers an essay highlighting CLS research on the "mental exercise" that bilingual speakers perform that positively affects their brains -- and that can benefit new language learners as well.

The audio version of Kroll's essay can be heard on the WAMC Northeast Public Radio network, on several radio stations in North America (see below) at online.

The text of her essay follows.

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Judith Kroll on The Bilingual Brain

Until recently, researchers assumed that monolingual speakers were the model subjects of study. Bilinguals were considered a special group of language users, much like patients with brain injury. In the past 20 years, this situation has changed dramatically with the realization that bilingualism is common in many places in the world. Bilinguals provide a unique opportunity to understand the way that language may shape the mind and the brain.

What have we learned? Contrary to the belief that young children will be confused by exposure to more than one language, the research shows that exposure to two languages from birth enables children to recognize and distinguish speech in both languages. Bilingual children also benefit relative to monolingual children, particularly in tasks that require what I'll call mental juggling -- taking different perspectives, ignoring information and switching from one task to the next.

At the Penn State Center for Language Science, we are studying young adult bilinguals and collaborating with researchers elsewhere in the world to understand how bilinguals speak their two languages and how that experience produces benefits for cognition and the brain. We have shown that the two languages are always active. This activity puts the two languages in competition but the cost of that competition is small relative to the benefits it appears to hold. When bilinguals speak with other bilinguals, they easily slip in and out of both languages, often selecting the word or phrase from the language that most clearly expresses their thoughts. Although both languages may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice. For a bilingual, selecting the language to speak is a form of mental exercise. The more exercise you get, the better off your brain may be as you age. So the bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you and it's probably not too late to start now!

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"Academic Minute" also is carried by several radio stations in North America (listed by state/province): 

-- KJZA in Williams-Prescott-Flagstaff, Ariz.;

-- KUCR in Riverside, Calif.;

-- KMPB in Dillon, Colo.;

-- CRIS Radio in Connecticut;

-- WERB in Berlin, Conn.;

-- KISU in Pocatello, Idaho;

-- WUIS in Springfield, Ill.;

--- WKCC in Kankakee, Ill.;

-- KRPS in Pittsburg, Kan.;


-- Radio Reading Service of Mississippi;

-- KXCV in Maryville, Mo.;

-- KENW/KMTH-FM in New Mexico;

-- WGHQ, WLNA and WBNR in Beacon, N.Y.;

-- WRFA in Jamestown, N.Y.;


-- WUOW in Oneonta, N.Y.;

-- WITR in Rochester, N.Y.

-- WNAA in Greensboro, N.C.;

-- WUSR in Scranton, Pa.;

-- KAMU in College Station, Tex.;

-- KEDT in Corpus Christi, Tex.;

-- KTSW in San Marcos, Tex.;

-- WNUB in Northfield, Vt.;

-- WLUR in Lexington, Va.;

-- WSUM in Madison, Wisc.; and

-- CISE in Saskatchewan, Canada.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 02, 2011