May 6, 2012

Bilingualism Fine-Tunes Hearing, Enhances Attention


Bilingualism Fine-Tunes Hearing, Enhances Attention

Dual language speakers better able to encode basic language sounds and patterns
By Wendy Leopold
April 30, 2012

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 April 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found the experience of bilingualism changes how the nervous system responds to sound.

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