Bilingualism doesn’t only mean that you can travel in a different country and not have to rely on your almost-forgotten high school Spanish to ask for directions, or that you can read a website in a foreign language without turning on Google translate. According to research by cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, regularly using two different languages appears to be linked to the later onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, initially studied a topic near and dear to my heart, how children acquire language. I’m a Classics professor at a small New Jersey college, I teach Latin and ancient Greek; as a child, I was fascinated by how many languages there are in the world and have studied quite a few of them. My teenage son Charlie is autistic and has a severe speech and communication disorder. He can talk in phrases of one to five words and relies a lot on non-verbal means of communication, from body language and behavior to humming and other non-linguistic verbalizations.
So I’m always in a state of translating among languages, whether Latin, ancient Greek, French, modern Greek and a couple others, and also Charlie’s verbal and non-verbal utterances. Even when he speaks, it’s not always clear what Charlie means; he uses one word (even a word that you’d think would have a very straightforward meaning like “no”) to mean quite a few things.
Using two languages regularly — and you have to really be using them, Bialystok says, not just trying to order some item off a Chinese or French menu — affects the functioning of your brain’s executive control system, says Bialystok:
If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.
In fact, Bialystok has done research about multitasking and found that those who are bilingual are better at it. She describes her research more extensively in the New York Times:
We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.
That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies, we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.
Latin and ancient Greek, the languages that I teach, are not spoken anymore and I routinely interfuse some instruction of modern languages including French and modern Greek into my classes. Along with my fellow foreign language teacher colleagues, I’ve been extremely dismayed at the number of foreign language classes and programs that have been cut in public schools and also at colleges and universities in the face of budget issues. Bialystok’s research should remind us that studying languages is not simply important — it is also good for our neurological health. As she says,
“Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.”
Photo by the author.
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