How a Second Language Trains Your Brain

I-LABS researchers Andrea Stocco and Chantel Prat show that the brain's basal ganglia may be a key player for bilinguals' improved executive function.

One of the recent neuroscience puzzles has been that people who are bilingual outperform monolinguals on cognitive tasks that have nothing to do with language. But it hasn't been clear what happens in the brain to enable this bilingual advantage.

Stocco and Prat, who co-direct the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory housed at I-LABS, have published a research paper in the October 2014 issue of the journal Brain and Language showing that the basal ganglia -- typically known for its involvement in rewards and motor functions -- has a special role in helping bilinguals on a cognitive test.

"The new results suggest that learning multiple languages trains the basal ganglia to switch more efficiently between the rules and vocabulary of different languages, and these are skills it can then transfer to other domains such as arithmetic," Stocco explained in a Pacific Standard story about the study.

"Language is one of the hardest things the brain does," Prat said in the Pacific Standard story. It is " at least an order of magnitude" more difficult than learning the first language.

Stocco and Prat said that the findings could mean that the basal ganglia "is a possible biological target for developing education and training paradigms and for rehabilitating cognitive function loss.