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Being Bilingual Is Good for Your Brain

Toggling back and forth between two languages is like doing P90x for your brain.

Looking for a reason to splurge on some Rosetta Stone DVDs? It turns out that being bilingual is actually really good for your brain. For the past 40 years cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok has studied the effects of knowing two languages on the mind. It turns out that all that translating back and forth in your head is some serious exercise for the brain's synapses.

In an interview with the New York Times, Bialystok shared that she's found that people who are bilingual are "using a different kind of network... Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism." And, that rewiring gives bilinguals an advantage. They're better at multitasking because their brains are used to having to concentrate while switching back and forth between two languages. Bilinguals kids are also better at determining if a sentence is grammatically correct and they perform better on written tests.

Bialystok has also found that although bilingual adults aren't immune to developing Alzheimer's disease, they are able to maintain normal functioning for five to six years longer than their monolingual peers. But, she notes, "You have to use both languages all the time. You won't get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Although Bialystok's research is pretty exciting, America's monolingual mindset is still firmly settled in our schools. Dual immersion programs are usually special single-school initiatives, and given budget cuts, we're seeing more schools eliminate foreign language programs. Even at the college level, once students meet the language requirement, usually two years of study, students don't have to think in a second language anymore.

So what might get Americans to fully invest in bilingual education? Given the globalization of the economy and the demand for bilingual employees in many American cities, the move to a bilingual society—and thus, the growth of dual immersion schools—might actually be spurred by the need to have a competitive workforce.

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