Speaking Multiple Languages May Help Delay Dementia Symptoms
April 04, 2012
The brains of people who grow up speaking two languages are wired differently, and those differences protect them from dementia as they age.
Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada
Since about 20 percent of Americans are bilingual and as many as 60 percent of people in big cities like Los Angeles grew up speaking two languages, this is no small issue.
research finds that bilingual children are better at “executive processing,” which includes being able to pay attention, plan and organize thoughts.
kids who grow up speaking two languages are better at switching between tasks than kids who spoke only one language.
Researchers gave 104 children a common executive function test on a computer that asked them to sort images of either colors or animals on a computer screen.
This “switching” task tests working memory and the ability to change from one rule to another.
The children who were bilingual in French, Chinese or Spanish were better at switching categories – in essence, multitasking.
That may well be because they learn early on to toggle between the two sets of rules for English and their other language.
bilingual adults maintain better executive functioning later in life than monolingual people.
That extra “cognitive reserve” may allow the brain to better cope with the damage caused by dementia, thereby delaying symptoms. (Being physically and mentally active has also been shown to have cognitive benefits.)
Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
But what about those of us who aren’t bilingual? Are we doomed?
“The kind of story we’re telling about bilingualism and dementia is not that bilingualism is the only inoculation against dementia, but rather, bilingualism is one of the many things we know that contributes to cognitive reserve,” Bialystok says.
“It’s why you’re supposed to do crossword puzzles and exercise and learn a musical instrument.
If you’re not bilingual but you’re active and engaged, you’re getting cognitive reserve.”
Still, bilinguals do have a natural advantage, she notes, because they can stay active and engaged without making a huge effort.
“Nobody spends all day every day doing crossword puzzles, but everybody spends all day every day talking,” Bialystok says.
“It’s a way to get massive doses of this stimulating activity without doing anything special.”
Bilingual Effects on Cognitive and Linguistic Development: Role of Language, Cultural Background, and Education
Raluca Barac, Ellen Bialystok
Child Development, March/April 2012, 83 (2), pages 413–422,
Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain
Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 30 March 2012, 16 (4), 240-250,