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Bilingual brains are better at ignoring distractions, study suggests

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Researchers from the University of Florida suggest that individuals who speak two languages may have better cognitive abilities in ignoring distractions and shifting attention compared to those who speak only one language.

About the study: In the study published in the journal Bilingualism Language and Cognition, the researchers analyzed the differences in attentional control and the ability to ignore irrelevant information between bilingual and monolingual individuals.

Methodology: The research used a novel task called the "partial repetition cost" to assess participants’ abilities in handling incoming information and control attention. The study included two groups: functional monolinguals, individuals with limited foreign language experience using their first language, and bilinguals, individuals who learned both languages between ages 9 to 12 and were still actively using both.

Findings: Bilinguals were found to be more efficient at ignoring irrelevant information, possibly due to the constant need to switch between two languages.

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“Our results showed that bilinguals seem to be more efficient at ignoring information that’s irrelevant, rather than suppressing — or inhibiting information,” study co-author Grace deMeurissede said in a university release. “One explanation for this is that bilinguals are constantly switching between two languages and need to shift their attention away from the language not in use.”

According to the study's other co-author Edith Kaan, an individual's cognitive traits continually adapt to external factors, highlighting the dynamic nature of cognition, which may change if the use of the second language is discontinued.

Benefits of bilinguals: The study emphasizes the need for consistency in experiments exploring differences between bilinguals and monolinguals and highlights that the goal is not to establish superiority but to understand cognitive variations.

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“We are not looking for advantages or disadvantages,” deMeurisse said. “However, regardless of cognitive differences, learning a second language is always going to be something that can benefit you, whether those benefits are cognitive, social, or environmental. It will never be a negative to be exposed to a second language.”

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