What do bilingualism and video games have in common?


We speak of bilingualism when a person masters two languages ​​at a similar level and speaks them fluently (either from the cradle or at a later age). Today in our global society, millions of people are able to communicate in more than one language .

Speaking several languages ​​is often worthy of admiration by people who do not have this ability: it is amazing how two or more lexical systems and cultural notions can coexist in the same brain. As if the effort were not enough, linguists have shown that both languages ​​are active in the brain even if one of them is being spoken .

Inhibitory control: ‘turning off’ the unwanted tongue

The complexity of the functioning of the bilingual brain has to do with the development of a powerful inhibitory control for the non-relevant language : that is, “turning off” one of the languages ​​when we use the other. Bilingual people learn to ignore the distractions and “noise” produced by the “unwanted” language. That is, they show better executive control of the brain than monolingual people .

They also have the ability to switch from one language to another depending on the context or need (called switch control in English). It is not surprising that, thanks to these special abilities, mastery of foreign languages ​​provides an advantage in terms of cognitive skills, in learning, attention, emotion and decision making .

But these enviable capacities are not only found in bilingual brains. We can develop some similar and even superior skills when we play video games.

Reaction times in regular players

Several psycholinguistic experiments have compared the performance on certain tasks of bilingual people (with English as their first language and different second languages) and people who regularly play video games.

The groups had to do some tests on the computer ( Simon’s tasks ) where they were presented with different stimuli: red or green squares or arrows in different directions. Two buttons on the keyboard were marked “right” and “left.” One task consisted of responding by pressing “right” when the red square appeared or “left” when a green square appeared.

The challenge was that the squares were dynamic and appeared from different sides of the screen. Therefore, people tended to be more correct in congruent tasks when a red figure appeared on the right side. In the other task, the key corresponding to the direction of the arrows had to be marked, which also appeared from different sides facing spatial conflicts. These tasks were presented in a mixed way, alternating squares and arrows.

These tests have been used for decades to test the human brain in terms of its cognitive abilities, specifically the ability to control, inhibit stimuli, to check reaction times and attention span.

The mental gymnastics of the video game

We might suspect that bilingual people, endowed with so many cognitive abilities, would win at all of these tasks. However, they were only faster in controlling attention (inhibitory control) to resolve conflicts between the stimulus and its position in the test.

Monolingual video game players were faster in presented responses and better in the control conditions (square or arrow). These latter skills are trained a lot during video games, which force us to develop memory to remember different rules of the game .

For inveterate gamers (and their families) this may be, perhaps, a relative consolation: it cannot be denied that the dynamics of a video game are somewhat close to the “mental gymnastics” that is performed with the practice of bilingualism .

Cognitive training

There are other studies that show that by playing video games we perform cognitive training. For example, action games develop the ability to quickly identify objects, prioritize and manage tasks; while strategic games teach how to handle multiple tasks simultaneously and efficiently and train decision-making.

They also show benefits in reasoning ability, short-term visual memory, working memory and cognitive control. The so-called [casual video games], with their simple rules and without much commitment from the participant , also encourage the player’s attention.

These cognitive abilities ( executive control, code switching and other cognitive processes promoted during video games coincide with those of a bilingual person. In fact, they surpass them, as the Simón test showed.

These findings point to the existence of certain advantages of video games for cognitive development for people who have not had the opportunity to go abroad or who claim that “they are not good at languages.”

The unique advantages of bilingualism

However, only learning a foreign language opens doors for us and allows us to get to know different cultures, read works in their original language, travel to more distant places and ultimately understand new, different points of view and get out of our conception of the world .

There are some studies that also suggest less cognitive deterioration in advanced age in bilingual people, although other research suggests that other factors besides linguistic skills also influence this .

Video games are not a panacea

Logically, everything is good in its measure. Playing video games has some downsides. The European Alfi Institute warns of the risks of video game addiction and recalls that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently included this addiction among recognized diseases.

For this reason, it is essential that we make moderate use of video games and alternate them with physical activity and healthy habits such as socializing in person outside the virtual environment.

Author Bio: Olga Koreneva Antonova is a Doctoral Assistant, Faculty of Translation/Interpretation, Area of ​​German Philology at Pablo de Olavide University