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Bilingual Hearing

May 30, 2012

Does speaking a second language change the way your brain works?



Do bilinguals hear better? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Throughout our lives, our brain’s hearing system changes as we experience different sounds. Neurobiologist Nina Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern University found that speaking a second language allows bilinguals to focus on a speaker and filter out distracting sounds better than monolinguals. They had volunteers listen to recordings of people talking while recording the electrical activity of their brains.When there wasn’t any background noise, the brains of all the participants were equally attentive. But when the background became noisy, like this: (Noisy chatter), bilinguals did better.


The nervous system of the bilingual was able to extract information about voice pitch particularly well.


Kraus says that the pitch of someone’s voice helps us identify the speaker when the room is noisy. Bilinguals may be better at doing this because they need to hear subtleties in speech that monolinguals don’t.  I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

It can be hard to make out individual voices in a crowd, but new research suggests that the brains of people who speak two languages may be better at it. (Jupiter Images)

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