MONDAY, April 30, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- People who speak two languages have enhanced hearing processing, which improves their attention and memory skills, a new, small study says.
Northwestern University researchers recorded the brainstem responses in 23 English- and-Spanish speaking teens and 25 English-only speaking teens as they heard speech sounds in two conditions.
Under quiet conditions, both groups had similar results. But when there was background noise, the bilingual teens' brains did better at detecting speech sounds.
The findings show that being bilingual changes how the nervous system responds to sound, according to the researchers.
"People do crossword puzzles and other activities to keep their minds sharp," study co-author Viorica Marian, a bilingualism expert and associate professor of communication sciences, said in a university news release.
"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," she explained.
The study appears April 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Bilinguals are natural jugglers," Marian said. "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."
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has more about the benefits of being bilingual.