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02-05-2012 | Physical rehabilitation | Article

Bilingualism improves hearing, attention

Abstract

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MedWire News: Individuals who are bilingual have enhanced sound perception and have improved attention and working memory skills compared with those who are monolingual, suggest study findings.

The researchers explain that the process of becoming bilingual seems to change how people's nervous systems respond to sound.

"People do crossword puzzles and other activities to keep their minds sharp," said study author Viorica Marian (Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA) in a press statement.

"But the advantages we've discovered in dual language speakers come automatically simply from knowing and using two languages. It seems that the benefits of bilingualism are particularly powerful and broad, and include attention, inhibition and encoding of sound."

The researchers recorded the auditory brainstem response to a complex sound (cABR) using electrodes placed on the scalp in 23 bilingual (English/Spanish speaking) and 25 monolingual (English-speaking) adolescents.

The team found that both groups responded in a similar way to the complex sound "da" (six-formant, 170-ms sound) when the area surrounding the participant was quiet.

However, when the sound was played at the same time as background noise the bilingual teenagers were better at encoding the fundamental frequency of speech sounds that are known to influence pitch perception and at grouping of specific auditory objects than the monolingual adolescents.

"Bilingualism serves as enrichment for the brain and has real consequences when it comes to executive function, specifically attention and working memory," study co-author Nina Kraus, also a Northwestern University researcher, told the press.

She added: "Through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound."

The researchers say their results suggest that the experience of fine-tuning attention that is required while gaining experience of speaking two languages allows the auditory system of these individuals to become very efficient at automatically processing sound.

"Bilinguals are natural jugglers," said Marian. "The bilingual juggles linguistic input and, it appears, automatically pays greater attention to relevant versus irrelevant sounds. Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved 'inhibitory control,' or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others."

By Helen Albert

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