Bilingual People Have More Gray Matter

A new study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex suggests people who speak two languages have more gray matter in the executive control region of the brain.

In past decades, much has changed about the understanding of bilingualism. Early on, bilingualism was thought to be a disadvantage because the presence of two vocabularies would lead to delayed language development in children. However, it has since been demonstrated that bilingual individuals perform better, compared with monolinguals, on tasks that require attention, inhibition and short-term memory, collectively termed “executive control.”

This “bilingual advantage” is believed to come about because of bilinguals’ long-term use and management of two spoken languages. But skepticism still remains about whether these advantages are present, as they are not observed in all studies. Even if the advantage is robust, the mechanism is still being debated.

“Inconsistencies in the reports about the bilingual advantage stem primarily from the variety of tasks that are used in attempts to elicit the advantage,” says senior author Guinevere Eden, DPhil, director for the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC). “Given this concern, we took a different approach and instead compared gray matter volume between adult bilinguals and monolinguals. We reasoned that the experience with two languages and the increased need for cognitive control to use them appropriately would result in brain changes in Spanish-English bilinguals when compared with English-speaking monolinguals. And in fact greater gray matter for bilinguals was observed in frontal and parietal brain regions that are involved in executive control.”

Gray matter of the brain has been shown to differ in volume as a function of people’s experiences. A prominent finding of this type was a report that London taxi drivers have more gray matter in brain areas involved in spatial navigation.

What about being bilingual leads to these advantages? To address this question the team went one step further. “Our aim was to address whether the constant management of two spoken languages leads to cognitive advantages and the larger gray matter we observed in Spanish-English bilinguals, or whether other aspects of being bilingual, such as the large vocabulary associated with having two languages, could account for this,” explains Olumide Olulade, PhD, the study’s lead author and post-doctoral fellow at GUMC.

This image shows a heart made up of the word Welcome in different languages.

The researchers compared gray matter in bilinguals of American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with monolingual users of English. Both ASL-English and Spanish-English bilinguals share qualities associated with bilingualism, such as vocabulary size. But unlike bilinguals of two spoken languages, ASL-English bilinguals can sign and speak simultaneously, allowing the researchers to test whether the need to inhibit the other language might explain the bilingual advantage. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

The researchers compared gray matter in bilinguals of American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with monolingual users of English. Both ASL-English and Spanish-English bilinguals share qualities associated with bilingualism, such as vocabulary size. But unlike bilinguals of two spoken languages, ASL-English bilinguals can sign and speak simultaneously, allowing the researchers to test whether the need to inhibit the other language might explain the bilingual advantage.

“Unlike the findings for the Spanish-English bilinguals, we found no evidence for greater gray matter in the ASL-English bilinguals,” Olulade says. “Thus we conclude that the management of two spoken languages in the same modality, rather than simply a larger vocabulary, leads to the differences we observed in the Spanish-English bilinguals.”

The research team says their findings adds to the growing understanding of how long-term experience with a particular skill — in this case management of two languages — changes the brain.

About this neuroscience and language research

In addition to Olulade and Eden, study authors include Nasheed I. Jamal, MD, Charles Perfetti, PhD, of The University of Pittsburgh, and Daniel S. Koo, PhD, and Carol J. LaSasso, PhD, of Gallaudet University (Washington, DC).

Funding: The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50 HD40095), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (F32 DC007774), and the National Science Foundation (SBE 0541953 and SBE 0541953).

Source: Karen Teber – GUMC
Image Credit: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory” by O. A. Olulade, N. I. Jamal, D. S. Koo, C. A. Perfetti, C. LaSasso, and G. F. Eden in Cerebral Cortex. Published online July 16 2015 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv152


Abstract

Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory

The “bilingual advantage” theory stipulates that constant selection and suppression between 2 languages results in enhanced executive control (EC). Behavioral studies of EC in bilinguals have employed wide-ranging tasks and report some conflicting results. To avoid concerns about tasks, we employed a different approach, measuring gray matter volume (GMV) in adult bilinguals, reasoning that any EC-associated benefits should manifest as relatively greater frontal GMV. Indeed, Spanish-English-speaking bilinguals exhibited greater bilateral frontal GMV compared with English-speaking monolinguals. Was this observation attributable to the constant selection and inhibition of 2 spoken languages? To answer this question, we drew on bimodal bilinguals of American Sign Language (ASL) and English who, unlike unimodal bilinguals, can simultaneously use both languages and have been shown not to possess the EC advantage. In this group, there was no greater GMV when compared with monolinguals. Together these results provide neuroanatomical evidence in support of the bilingual advantage theory.

“Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory” by O. A. Olulade, N. I. Jamal, D. S. Koo, C. A. Perfetti, C. LaSasso, and G. F. Eden in Cerebral Cortex. Published online July 16 2015 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv152

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