A new study indicates that people who speak two languages (bilinguals) are more visually attentive than those who only speak English (monolinguals).
The research, published today [20 January, 2016] in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, was led by Dr Roberto Filippi and Professor Peter Bright from Anglia Ruskin University.
The study, which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, investigated the possible effects of bilingualism on visual short-term memory.
Adult bilingual and monolingual speakers were presented with two pictures (the original and a slightly modified version) of various scenes and required to press a key as soon as they could identify the difference.
The study found that the bilingual participants were significantly faster (2.9 seconds) and 11% more accurate than monolinguals in identifying the change in the picture.
Dr Filippi, director of the Multilanguage & Cognition Lab at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Our research is examining whether learning a second or a third language provides cognitive advantages or disadvantages across someone’s life span.
“Our work to date indicates that bilingual and multilingual speakers of different ages seem to have an advantage when performing non-verbal tasks requiring selective attention.
“A possible interpretation for this advantage is that bilingual speakers, in order to process one language, need to suppress the other. This constant inhibitory ‘mental work-out’ could in turn strengthen general cognitive processes such as memory and attention, helping bilingual speakers block distracting information.
“This hypothesis would also explain evidence showing that life-long use of two or more languages might offer protection against cognitive deterioration associated with normal ageing as well as Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurodegenerative conditions.
“It is important that the public, and in particular parents and educators, are aware of the potential importance of speaking more than one language on the development and maintenance of cognitive abilities.”