Bilingual people are better at regulating and controling cognitive processes, a new study has found.

The study, published in the December issue of Brain & Language, uses advanced neuroimaging techniques to reveal the neural processes in specific brain structures. It proves contrary to the view that children who speak more than one language are slower learners.

When a person begins speaking a word, the listener immediately starts guessing at what the word might be. For instance, when the syllable "wa" is spoken, it could mean "watch", "what" "war" etc. The listener, on hearing the initial syllable, starts guessing the word. If he or she speaks only English, the brain looks for only English words, whereas for bilingual speakers, words that begin with that syllable in both languages are likely candidates. The trick is in choosing the right word.

The new study in bilingualism formulated a language comprehension task to observe, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which areas of the brain are activated. Subjects aged between 18 and 27 were told a series of words such as "cloud" and "clown" and were shown pictures of a cloud, and their task was to match the right word with the picture.

While bilingual speakers performed the task no faster than monolingual speakers, the monolingual speakers had to activate special regions of the brain, and consequently their brains were working harder to perform the same task, which was customary work for the bilingual brain. In short, the bilingual brain regularly filters out so many different words that other executive tasks were very easy for it.

This mental workout may be crucial in ageing people. Earlier studies have shown that bilingual minds display the signs of Alzheimer's syndrome five years later than their monolingual counterparts. These studies don't prove that Alzheimer's develop later in bilingual people but just that bilingual people are better at coping with the symptoms of Alzheimer's and the symptoms become evident in them much later.

The reason why language is a good mental exercise is because unlike playing chess or the piano, language is used all the time. Therefore, people who are bilingual are constantly doing double the mind work that monolingual people do, and when it is time to do a mental excutive function, their minds find it relatively easy to perform the task.

Studies have also found that adults who take six months of language lessons to perform executive functions better than adults who don't take language lessons. It is not just children, then, who can take advantage of bilingualism, but adults as well.

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