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A new study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found certain brain functions are enhanced in teens who are fluent in more than one language, particularly those functions that enable teens to determine the relevance and irrelevance of noises around them.
About 1 in 5 children nationwide speak a language other than English at home. Children who grow up learning to speak 2 languages tend to learn English words and grammar more slowly than those who speak only English. But studies have found that bilingual children tend to be better than monolingual children at multitasking. They are also better at focusing their attention—for example, homing in on a voice in a noisy school cafeteria.
The researchers studied 48 incoming first year high school students, 23 of whom were proficient in both Spanish and English.
The researchers played the speech syllable “da” to the teens, using electrodes to record the intensity of their auditory brainstem response. Bilinguals showed a larger response than monolinguals. When the sound was played with a background of babble, monolingual teens had a less intense response than when it was played alone. In contrast, bilinguals showed virtually identical responses with and without the background babble.
In another experiment, the teens were given a selective attention test in which they were asked to click a mouse when a 1, but not a 2, was seen or heard. The test involved 500 trials of 1 or 2 seconds each over a period of 20 minutes. The bilingual teens outperformed the monolingual teens on this test.
Research conclude that these findings suggest the bilingual experience may help improve selective attention by enhancing the auditory brainstem response. Bilingual students showed a natural ability to determine which sounds were important, and then focus on relevent sounds while discounting the irrelevant.
Read more: National Institute of Health