What happens to your brain when you are bilingual?

Research has demonstrated that when a bilingual person uses one language, the other is active simultaneously (Pliatsikas, 2020). The phenomenon is called speech coactivation. The constant juggling between two languages requires regulating how much a person accesses a language at any given time. It is an essential skill from a communication point of view since it is difficult to understand a message when the other language keeps interfering.

How does a bilingual’s brain differ?

Studies suggest that the benefits of bilingualism on executive functioning are not limited to the brain’s language network (Blanco-Elorrieta & Pylkkänen, 2018). Bilingual people show greater activation in the brain region associated with cognitive abilities such as attention and inhibition. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals at encoding the fundamental frequency of sounds in the presence of background noise. Therefore, in a noisy restaurant, it is easier for a bilingual than a monolingual to encode what the other person is saying.

Furthermore, the bilingual experience appears to change how neurological structures process information. It may also change the neurological structures themselves. Better proficiency in a second language and earlier acquisition of that language correlate with a greater volume of gray matter in the left inferior parietal cortex. It is part of the brain where language switching occurs. Bilingualism enriches the brain and has real consequences for executive functions, particularly attention and working memory. The bilingual juggles voice input and automatically pays more attention to relevant noises than irrelevant ones. Instead of promoting language confusion, bilingualism promotes better inhibitory control.

How does a bilingual’s brain function?

Research suggests that when you learn or use a second language regularly, it constantly becomes “on” in your brain alongside your native language (De Bot & Jaensch, 2015). To enable communication, your brain must choose one language and block out the other. This process requires effort, and the brain adapts to perform it more efficiently. It is altered structurally (through changes in the size or shape of specific regions and the integrity of the white matter pathways that connect them) and functionally (through changes in the number of particular areas used). These adaptations generally occur in regions and paths of the brain that are also used for other cognitive processes called “executive functions.” These include working memory and attentional control (ignoring competing and irrelevant information and focusing on a goal)


Researchers measure these cognitive processes with specially designed tasks (Blanco-Elorrieta & Pylkkänen, 2018). Being bilingual can improve job performance, usually in faster response times or higher accuracy. But what about the big question: is bilingualism good for your brain? It depends. While much remains to be learned about how the brain precisely adapts to the bilingual experience, it’s clear how it uses additional language makes a big difference. You can do your brain a favor by opting for the best resources, such as The Adventures of Pili, as you transition towards bilingualism.


Blanco-Elorrieta, E., & Pylkkänen, L. (2018). Ecological validity in bilingualism research and the bilingual advantage. Trends in cognitive sciences22(12), 1117-1126.

De Bot, K., & Jaensch, C. (2015). What is special about L3 processing?. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition18(2), 130-144.

Pliatsikas, C. (2020). Understanding structural plasticity in the bilingual brain: The Dynamic Restructuring Model. 23(2), 459-471.