My niece is practically fluent in Spanish. It started with colors and numbers, which she would impressively recite at family gatherings. But now, a few years later, she can spew out full, complex sentences in Spanish that, of course, none of us adults can understand. And the truth is, I’m jealous—of an 11-year-old mini version of me, I am jealous. Because I’ve always wanted to be bilingual, but even with four years of Spanish class under my belt, I just couldn’t get the hang of it. And if that weren’t upsetting enough, my niece is now speaking French and on her way to being trilingual.

Why is it that some people have a much easier time learning a new language? How is it that my 11-year-old niece is able to learn a third language before I’m able to even learn a second? Well, a new study “Bilingual and monolingual adults learning an additional language: ERPs reveal differences in syntactic processing” conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center sheds some light on the topic, as it found that bilinguals are better than monolinguals at learning new languages. The researchers behind this study observed that it takes significantly longer for monolingual people to display P600 brain activity following language learning.

In order to make this discovery, the research team recruited 13 bilingual college students, who learned both English and Mandarin at a young age, and 16 monolingual college students, who only spoke fluent English. They then gave these participants the task of understanding and speaking a new language called Brocanto2 (an artificial version of a Romance language) over the course of a week. Their brain patterns were examined in the early and late stages of this experiment using electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes placed on their scalps while they listened to this new language.

At the end of the first day of the study, those who were bilingual showed a specific brain wave pattern called P600, which is commonly found when people process their native language. However, the monolinguals didn’t display the P600 effects until later in the week. Furthermore, the monolinguals showed a different brain-wave pattern that is unusually displayed in native speakers of other languages.

This is the first study of its kind to examine these differences between bilingual and monolingual brains as they begin to process a new language, and its findings are telling. “The difference is readily seen in language learners’ brain patterns,” says Michael T. Ullman, PhD, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown and the study’s senior researcher. “When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language.”

Furthermore, “bilinguals appear to learn the new language more quickly than monolinguals,” adds lead author Sarah Grey, PhD, assistant professor in the department of modern languages and literatures at Fordham University. So not only did this study show that bilinguals and monolinguals rely on rather different brain functions, but it also suggests that bilinguals are able to learn the languages more easily and more quickly.

The emergence of this study and its findings serve as great consolation for me. I no longer feel guilty or ashamed about my 11-year-old niece learning a third language before I can lock down a second: because she’s bilingual and I’m monolingual we learn new languages in different ways, and she’s able to do so more quickly. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be kicking it into overdrive to become bilingual before she’s miraculously quadrilingual.

Source: GUMC “Bilingual People May Find it Easier to Learn New Languages.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 2 October 2017. <>.

Original Research: Abstract for “Bilingual and monolingual adults learning an additional language: ERPs reveal differences in syntactic processing” by Sarah Grey, Cristina Sanz, Kara Morgan-Short and Michael T. Ullman in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. Published online October 2 2017 doi:10.1017/S1366728917000426