Bilingualism and Pattern Recognition

I have been told time and time again that being bilingual “makes you smarter.” Now, me being me I have to question this. I’ve spent quite some time and I have convinced myself that, it is true being bilingual does indeed improve your ability to problem solve.

Your Brain is an Interpreter

One thing that the human brain excels at is pattern recognition. This is where humans trump A.I., though the gap is closing. Even a dog is “smarter” than A.I. at this point, so what makes us better than other animals? I suspect it is not opposable thumbs, given that other animals also have opposable thumbs. Rather our ability to speak, write and represent our thoughts to be far more valuable. Every animal has the ability to recognize patterns, some can even communicate thoughts, but we are the only animal (that I know of) capable of crafting riddles, or writing a poem.

Why is the ability to craft riddles or writing poetry so important? Reading a text book is straight forward. You read it once, twice maybe even three times, but in the end all you do is interpret the information on the page and convert it into memory/knowledge. What is a little more interesting is that understanding a riddle or a poem requires further abstraction. Not only are we required to know our what letters, then words, then sentences mean, but then we must understand the essence of the riddle/rhyme. Even if we read a poem/riddle three, four, or a hundred times we may never understand the meaning/solution, unless we are skilled enough.

For example, the following is a riddle called “As I was going to St Ives“, which seems to be a modified form of a problem from the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

It is widely believed that the this is used to teach or explain an algorithm of multiplication:

Solution One: 7 kits * 7 cats * 7 sacks * 7 wives

Solution Two (as my girlfriend pointed out): Only 1, me! Since it isn’t specified that the men, wives, etc. are going to St. Ives.

If we did not understand that word had is a synonym for possess, or that each tier (line) of items were tied together to the one before it**, we would not understand the riddle and would be incapable of solving it.

** E.g. each of the seven items in a particular line is possessed/carried by each of the previous items, 7 kits belong to each of the 7 cats in a sack and there are 7 sacks that belong to each wife. This means that they are all required to go to St. Ives. <- This was a bit tricky.

Although for you or me this may seem intuitive, it is not. In fact, I know the first time I read the riddle I did not even consider the possibility that not all were going to St. Ives. For me, it was clear that each wife had 7 sacks.. etc., but in truth this is not an easy problem. Currently there is no other animal, nor computer that can solve general riddles such as the one above. Sure, they can be specialized to solve specific riddles or even specific kinds of riddles, but not all of them.


Since language seems to be very important for problem solving (at least abstract problem solving, such as riddles), I would argue that,

Improving your understanding of language(s) will improve your problem solving ability.

There have been several studies which support my statement, though it is still under some debate [1]. However, if this is true learning one language is very important and highly correlated with learning, and problem solving, but learning multiple languages would actually help more. There are multiple studies supporting this argument as well[2][3].

Further, since it is likely that learning multiple languages not only increase cognitive bandwidth, but also enhances ones ability to context switch, recognize characters, and think from multiple viewpoints (read the articles/studies above). Since those enhancements are often associated with intelligence and problem solve, being bilingual (or more) improves your intelligence. Beyond increased bandwidth, the skills gained from learning multiple view points and having multiple words for the same thing aid in ones ability to abstract, turning words into ideas. In essence, this is what a computer cannot do (yet), it cannot abstract words into ideas.

Compression and Extraction

Since being bilingual improves your ability to abstract information, by assuming the unsaid or extracting the compressed information, the reverse would also likely  be true. Meaning, since bilinguals can more easily extract information then they can likely more easily compress information. This would be the case because,

  • Bilinguals can better structure their ideas, since they had to learn multiple ways to say the same thing (simply pick the shortest one).
  • Bilinguals have more bandwidth, quite literally bilinguals have increased cognitive bandwidth [4], which would improve their ability to figure out how to compress information.

This is a clear advantage and it is hard to quantify, it seems clear that being bilingual should be a goal for anyone interested in maximizing intelligence such as myself.

Related Articles

Intelligence Quotient (IQ) – A Guide to Improvement
Maximizing Learning – How Audiobooks Can Change Your Life

Why I am Learning Irish
Learning Through Blogging
Are College Degrees Worth the Cost?

Further Reading

Compressing Knowledge (
Creativity, Literature, and Compression (
The Science of Problem Solving (

One thought on “Bilingualism and Pattern Recognition

  1. Your St. Ives link is broken. I always thought it was a riddle, but Wikipedia lists 9 possible answers. So my new answer to the problem is, “Yes.”

    Oh, and while computers can’t yet solve riddles, they can generate them.

    Regarding the context switching idea, I’d expect that bilinguals have stronger scores on tests of executive attention, which can be trained — incidentally, via meditation or there’s been some success with computer games — and that should correlate with measures of self-control. And maybe cognitive flexibility, which might show up in measures of creativity.

    I have noticed, just from observing those proficient in multiple languages, that studying other languages does improve one’s understanding of language itself (e.g. parts of speech, whatever — all that stuff I can’t be harassled to learn). This seems especially prominent among those learning constructed languages (“conlangs”), but they might be self-selecting.

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