U. of Haifa study: Bilingual people exhibit greater cognitive flexibility

Study is part of a Safra Center series that integrates direct measurement of cognitive and brain activity and the connection between bilingual experience to the formation of cognitive processes.

November 11, 2013 22:36
2 minute read.

RAPHIQ IBRAHIM 370. (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)


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University of Haifa researchers have found that bilingualism significantly contributes to the cognitive ability to create a variety of ideas and to skip among them.

“It may be that the lifelong experience of people who speak more than one language, which constantly requires shifting among tongues, explains the advantage of bilinguals in their cognitive flexibility,” says Prof. Raphiq Ibrahim of the Safra Brain Research Center, who headed the research.

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Being equally fluent in two languages contributes significantly to cognitive flexibility expressed in the ability to create a variety of ideas and ways of coping with problems and the ability to skip quickly among sets of thoughts.

His findings were recently published in the journal Psychology.

Previous research in the field has only dealt with children.

In Ibrahim’s study, which he conducted with Prof. David Share, Reut Shoshani and Dr. Anat Prior, the researchers wanted to examine whether adults who are fluent in two languages exhibit spontaneous flexible complex thinking.

They also wanted to test reactive cognitive flexibility, the ability to make changes in thinking and focus each time on another subject according to the changing situation.

Two groups participated in the study. The first was bilingual, fluent in two languages and speaking at the same level, consisting of Israelis who grew up in homes with Englishspeaking parents and made aliya at a young age. The second group consisted of participants who were born in Israel and for who Hebrew is their dominant language, and who have a basic to intermediate level of English learned in school. The participants underwent a series of tests to examine the two kinds of cognitive flexibility.

Ibrahim and colleagues found that equally bilingual people showed higher levels in both types of cognitive flexibility, and the differences in results of tests of spontaneous flexibility were greater. Using statistical measures, the researchers even examined the influence of being bilingual and found that this was more closely connected to differences in spontaneous flexibility – this strengthened even more the explanation that this skill improves performance.

“Our research sheds more light on the importance and benefits of being bilingual – especially spontaneous cognitive flexibility, which is believed to be a higher level of cognitive activity. It has become clear that a daily bilingual lifestyle contributes significantly to improving this ability,” Ibrahim concluded.

This study is part of a Safra Center series that integrates direct measurement of cognitive and brain activity and the connection between bilingual experience to the formation of cognitive processes.

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