A new Northwestern University study provides the first biological evidence that bilinguals’ rich experience with language “fine-tunes” their auditory nervous system and helps them juggle linguistic input in ways that enhance attention and working memory.
Northwestern bilingualism expert Viorica Marian teamed up with auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus to investigate how bilingualism affects the brain. In particular, they looked at subcortical auditory regions that are bathed with input from cognitive brain areas.
Kraus has already shown that lifelong music training enhances language processing, and looking at subcortical auditory regions helped to tell that tale.
“For our joint study, we asked if bilingualism could also promote experience-dependent changes in the fundamental encoding of sound in the brainstem — an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain,” said Marian, professor of communication sciences.
The answer is a resounding yes, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found the experience of bilingualism changes how the nervous system responds to sound.
“People do crossword puzzles and other activities to keep their minds sharp,” Marian said. “But the advantages we’ve discovered in dual language speakers come automatically simply from knowing and using two languages. It seems that the benefits of bilingualism are particularly powerful and broad, and include attention, inhibition and encoding of sound.”
“Bilingualism serves as enrichment for the brain and has real consequences when it comes to executive function, specifically attention and working memory,” said Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor at Northwestern’s School of Communication.
In future studies, she and Marian will investigate whether these advantages can be achieved by learning a language later in life.
Brainstem Sound Response
In the study, the researchers recorded the brainstem responses to complex sounds (cABR) in 23 bilingual English-and-Spanish-speaking teenagers and 25 English-only-speaking teens as they heard speech sounds in two conditions.
Under a quiet condition, the groups responded similarly.
But against a backdrop of background noise, the bilingual brains were significantly better at encoding the fundamental frequency of speech sounds known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects. This enhancement was linked with advantages in auditory attention.
“Through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound,” Kraus explained.
“Bilinguals are natural jugglers,” said Marian. “The bilingual juggles linguistic input and, it appears, automatically pays greater attention to relevant versus irrelevant sounds. Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved ‘inhibitory control,’ or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others.”
The study provides biological evidence for system-wide neural plasticity in auditory experts that facilitates a tight coupling of sensory and cognitive functions.
“The bilingual’s enhanced experience with sound results in an auditory system that is highly efficient, flexible and focused in its automatic sound processing, especially in challenging or novel listening conditions,” Kraus added.