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Your brain on a second language: Bilingualism and brain power

Photo by Reigh LeBlanc/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Does being bilingual really make you smarter? Science staff writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee made a good argument for it in the Sunday New York Times, citing several studies in recent years which suggest that the ability to speak a second language indeed boosts cognitive skills.

Key to the most recent understanding of how this works is a reversal in attitudes toward a second language being an "interference." Once thought to have hindered academic and intellectual development, this factor turns out not to be such a bad thing after all. Bhattacharjee writes:

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.

But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.