Is it better to be bilingual?

What are the advantages of being bilingual? And does it help us later in life?
09 May 2017

Interview with 

Roberto Filipi, University College London


Colourful speech bubbles


There are 7,099 known living languages across the world. Whilst we won't be attempting to learn all of them, we started to wonder about bilingualism. Does speaking multiple languages exercise the brain? Roberto Filipi from University College London talked to Tim Revell about the benefits of being bilingual... 

Tim -  We heard there that every language has the same pattern of stressed syllables, but apart from that there is incredible diversity. And many people are able to speak multiple languages. But what affect does this have on your brain?

Here with us now is researcher and bilingual, Roberto Filipi from University College London.

Tim - What advantages can you get from being bilingual?

Roberto - There is recent research that shows that speaking two or more languages may enhance your attention.

Tim - Why should that be the case?

Roberto - If you think how a bilingual mind may work. If you speak two languages you need to suppress one and activate the other one and you do this every time, even at night when you dream because you dream in two languages and you switch between languages. So this constant switching may, in turn, give you the advantage of being more focussed on what you need to do, even if it’s nonverbal material and, therefore, your attention is more enhanced.

Tim - Are there any other benefits other than increasing attention?

Roberto - Being bilingual, I would say, gives you lots of benefits. First of all you can communicate with lots of people and when you travel you don’t feel awkward because you can’t talk to people. I would say that being more immersed in a language is good to understand the culture of a different country or different people. So bilingual is always a good thing.

But, again, it wasn’t like this all the time. If you take old research that was carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century, bilingual speakers were considered delayed in many aspects of cognitive development. This is because, compared to monolingual speakers, they failed IQ tests. Therefore there was a belief that speaking two or more languages was detrimental to cognitive development. More recent evidence, of course, disproved this and now we can say that there are advantages and, for sure, there are not disadvantages of learning two or more languages for children especially at school. So I would start really, really early to learn two languages.

Tim - That’s really interesting and good to hear. Recently I’ve started learning Danish because my girlfriend is Danish. So I was wondering whether, you mentioned that learning when you were younger can be a bit easier, but do you get any of these benefits from learning a second language later in life, perhaps when you’re not longer a child?

Roberto - Yes, definitely. Of course you need good motivation and you have one which is really good. But, if you see also my case, I learnt English when I was already quite old in life, and when I moved to this country I was already 38. Still, you can reach a good level of proficiency of course. You don’t sound maybe as a native speaker of english like my children. They leant English and Italian since birth so they really sound Italian when they’re speaking Italian - they sound English when they’re speaking English. This is not my case.

But in terms of proficiency and the way you communicate with people I would say there are not particular differences.

Tim - What about children who are raised bilingually versus learning it at school - do we see any differences in the way they pick up language or the way it affects their brain?

Roberto - Children are really like sponges. They absorb every kind of signal that they can get. Clearly, speaking two languages within a family is an advantage because they are exposed to two languages since birth. Learning at school early in life is equally good anyway because the practice of learning two languages is always good for cognitive development.

Tim - Is there any evidence that being bilingual can have impacts later in life - for example, prolonging things like Alzheimer's or dementia?

Roberto - Yes. There is research showing that lifelong bilingualism may protect the brain from neurodegeneration. In particular, in one study they compared monolingual speakers and bilingual speakers who had diagnosed Alzheimer’s late in life, and the bilingual speakers had reported the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s five years later. Clearly, this is quite a significant result but, clearly, we also need more evidence about this before claiming that bilingualism may protect the brain for developing Alzheimer’s.


Add a comment