Bilingualism and domain-general cognitive functions from a neural perspective: A systematic review

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2021 Jun;125:264-295. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.02.029. Epub 2021 Feb 22.


A large body of research has indicated that bilingualism - through continual practice in language control - may impact cognitive functions, as well as relevant aspects of brain function and structure. The present review aimed to bring together findings on the relationship between bilingualism and domain-general cognitive functions from a neural perspective. The final sample included 210 studies, covering findings regarding neural responses to bilingual language control and/or domain-general cognitive tasks, as well as findings regarding effects of bilingualism on non-task-related brain function and brain structure. The evidence indicates that a) bilingual language control likely entails neural mechanisms responsible for domain-general cognitive functions; b) bilingual experiences impact neural responses to domain-general cognitive functions; and c) bilingual experiences impact non-task-related brain function (both resting-state and metabolic function) as well as aspects of brain structure (both macrostructure and microstructure), each of which may in turn impact mental processes, including domain-general cognitive functions. Such functional and structural neuroplasticity associated with bilingualism may contribute to both cognitive and neural reserves, producing benefits across the lifespan.

Keywords: Bilingualism; Brain function; Brain structure; Domain-general cognitive functions; Language control; Meta-analysis; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Multilingualism*
  • Neuronal Plasticity