Think Like a Bilingual

Is it ever too late to benefit from a second language?

World Bank Photo Collection
World Bank Photo Collection


For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people I was a psycholinguist. Not just because the label itself seemed so ridiculous—as if regular linguists weren’t strange enough—but because when I was asked how many languages I spoke, I’d have to respond in the only one I knew.

I’ve long thought I ought to remedy the situation, to give seemingly effective (and definitely free) language learning apps like Duolingo a try. And if dodging embarrassment and actually being able to speak another language aren’t reasons enough, there may be some cognitive perks in it for me as well.

You’ve probably heard of the “bilingual advantage,” an idea championed by many psychologists: having more than one language seems to make people particularly adept at managing their attention, even during tasks that don’t involve language at all. The advantage doesn’t always appear in laboratory experiments, even when we might expect it to. But it has been shown a number of times, and in bilingual populations ranging from infants (better at inhibiting old impulses to learn new ones) to older adults (able, astonishingly, to delay the onset of dementia).

Less talked about are the disadvantages that come with bilingualism. The competition between languages leaves bilingual adults slightly slower to name objects, and somewhat likelier to experience a tip-of-the-tongue slip-up. But don’t be deterred. These are problems of abundance, like momentarily confusing whether you’ve left something in your house or in your summer home.

Best of all, a study published recently by Sabra Pelham and Lise Abrams at the University of Florida argues that becoming bilingual later in life doesn’t preclude people from capitalizing on its cognitive effects. In Pelham and Abrams’s study, bilinguals were slower at naming pictures but better at willing themselves to ignore irrelevant information than monolinguals, just as predicted. But adult bilinguals who’d learned their second language after childhood—on average less than five years earlier in fact—performed just like those who’d been bilingual since childhood.

In some sense this is surprising. Learning a second language tends to be more difficult after puberty. Wouldn’t the biological and structural changes that collude to make learning trickier with age—less flexibility in how our brains organize, more existing pathways to get in the way of new ones—affect the system we’re finally left with? And they probably do, at least when it comes to how and how well we eventually speak our second language. But age of second language acquisition seems not to impact our cognition more broadly. Instead, this and other studies suggest that the boost in cognitive control stems from years of practice switching between one competing set of sounds, words, and rules and another: the suppressing and the reviving and the suppressing.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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