Bilingual vs. Monolingual: What's the Cerebral Difference?

Bilingual vs. Monolingual: What's the Cerebral Difference?

Iman Kashif - 5 November 2021

‘Bilingual’ refers to those who are capable of speaking more than one language, while ‘monolingual’ refers to those who speak only one. In this article, the difference in brain activity and effects on the brain concerning bilingualism and monolingualism will be explored.

The Differences

Speaking cognitively, the bilingual brain’s advantages can include benefits in administrative controls, such as re-equipping, switching, or initiating tasks. However these advantages vary from individual to individual depending on the level of mastery of language(s), age, how often the language(s) are utilized, and other factors.

But first, what causes these advantages to even be present in the first place? A study published in 2017 found that bilingual people’s capability to “seamlessly switch between two distinct communication systems masks the considerable control exerted at the neural level.” This is due to the phenomenon of both languages essentially being ‘switched on’ in the bilingual’s brain whenever a word from a language is spoken, causing a dual side-by-side activation of two languages as opposed to one in the case of a monolingual. In simpler terms, while a monolingual being would only have one language system running in their brain while interpreting language, a bilingual would have two language systems running simultaneously, therefore illustrating the difference in cranial activity between both types of speakers.

Additionally, bilingualism can also affect physical brain structure. According to a 2004 article titled Neurolinguistics: structural plasticity in the bilingual brain, learning and having knowledge of an extra language can result in an increase in the amount of grey matter (area of processing within the brain) within the left inferior parietal cortex of the brain. Likewise, the impact of bilingualism on the white matter content within children’s brains - was also found as evidence in a 2012 study on structural differences of white matter between monolingual and bilingual children. Considered together, this research suggests that having knowledge of an additional language not only alters brain processing, but also has an effect on the brain structure as well.

Conclusive Remarks

To summarize, there are a variety of factors which distinguish the bilingual brain from its monolingual counterpart. Whether it be through brain processing, cranial structure, or brain functionality, the differences present are enough to conclude that bilinguals and monolinguals have a difference in function pathways. These effects are dependent on various individual factors, but nonetheless exist as a distinction between bilingual and monolingual brains.