The United States is becoming increasingly bilingual. As of 2021 approximately 20% of Americans spoke more than one language. Studies show that being bilingual has cognitive advantages.Data from 63 studies indicated that bilingualism is associated with increased “attention, working memory, and abstract and symbolic representation skills.”
These increased cognitive skills may be the result of brain activation that occurs with word recognition. When hearing a word, bilingual people’s brains “co-activate.” Attending to two languages boosts the development of executive functions. In fact, the advantages of being bilingual extend beyond language. MRI studies have demonstrated that “when bilingual people switch between naming pictures in Spanish and naming them in English, they show increased activation in their prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with cognitive skills like attention and inhibition.”
A 2016 MRI study with infants from bilingual families showed a great deal of activity in their prefrontal cortex, “suggesting that they are getting practice at tasks related to executive function.” And evidence suggests that this higher level of attention control persists, protecting the aging brain against cognitive decline.
Children from monolingual families who learn a foreign language before the age of 10 can become proficient speakers. Most American educators support including foreign language study in kindergarten. According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Group, Between 64-100% of European students typically “begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9.” In contrast, only 20% of U.S students were enrolled in foreign language classes. Considering the cognitive advantages of being bilingual, including foreign language in schools is a first step.