Did you ever play that game where someone told you to say “soldier” ten times fast, then asked you what the top part of the arm—where it joins the body—was called? Supposedly, you’ll stumble, and instead of saying “shoulder,” you’ll repeat “soldier,” because you’ve got that word on the brain.
It turns out, bilinguals may not find the game as challenging as monolinguals.
TIME recently posted about a research study from Northwestern University, in which monolinguals and bilinguals heard a word, such as “candy,” then were shown four pictures, including one that matched the word, but also “candle,” and two other, completely different words. Brain scans indicated that it took longer for monolinguals to zero in on the correct picture and that their brains registered more activity, indicating that differentiating between the two similar-sounding words was not automatic.
The TIME article asks whether bilinguals are better at the task because of their language ability, or if an innate knack for such tasks makes them better at mastering new languages. My gut says the latter can’t be true—there are far more bilingual people out there than monolinguals who have a serious block when it comes to learning a new language. Rather, the act of learning and practicing multiple languages causes the brain to switch between tasks in ways that strengthen it for new tasks, much like a basketball player would be better at tennis than a chess player, simply because she’s used to being on her feet.
If you’re a teacher, how about engaging your students in a little informal research? Play the soldier/shoulder game with a few of them, and see how they do. Does bilingualism figure into how easy it is for them?