Scientists have found another incentive for you to make the most of your foreign language class – a new study suggests that knowing more than one language can help boost our powers of attention and focus.
Researchers in the UK found that bilinguals are better able to zero in on the task at hand than those who only know one language, and it sheds light on a long-standing debate over how language learning affects the brain.
While the link between bilingualism and attention has been demonstrated before, it’s been unclear if learning an extra language can actually improve the brain’s ability to focus, rather than just helping it to block out distractions.
To figure out how bilingualism affects our ability to focus, researchers from the University of Birmingham recruited 99 volunteers, 51 of which only spoke English, while 48 had been speaking English and Chinese on a daily basis since an early age.
The researchers then had the two groups run through three well-established psychological tests.
In the so-called Flanker test, the participants were shown rows of arrows on a computer screen, and asked to press a key corresponding to the direction of the central arrow. This measured their capacity to ignore the arrows on either side of the central arrow.
For the Spatial Stroop test, only one arrow was shown each time, but it appeared in different places on the screen. This was designed to disorientate the viewer and test their focus.
Finally, the Simon task was very similar to the Spatial Stroop test, but used coloured blocks (red and blue) rather than arrows. Again, this was used to test response times when the stimuli were in unexpected or counterintuitive locations.
The two groups both scored about the same on the first test, suggesting they were equally as good at trying to block out distractions, but the monolinguals recorded slower responses over the three tests taken as a whole.
The researchers suggest that the bilingual brain is better at maintaining focus, due to its experience in regularly having to switch between languages – but there doesn’t appear to be any advantage in how well it can tune out other distractions.
“Together with other evidence, our research suggests that the lifetime task of switching between languages appears to enhance the ability to maintain attention,” said one of the researchers, Andrea Krott.
Now Krott and her colleagues want to understand more about how this improved ability to focus and sustain attention develops in bilinguals.
“It is already well known that the experience of speaking another language changes the structure of the brain and how it functions,” she said. “But we do not understand very well how these changes lead to changes in behaviour.”
In the meantime, if the internet has destroyed your attention span, you might want to consider signing up for a foreign language course.
The findings have been published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.