Mind Your Language

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

Knowing more than one language will likely be an advantage to those whose summer plans include travelling to a foreign locale.

But beyond the obvious social benefits associated with being able to order moules or Bratkartoffel, and sing in Japanese karaoke bars like a native, bilingualism is scientifically proven to enhance brain function and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Bilingual brains are more flexible than monolingual ones, and better able to multitask, says cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, a Distinguished Research Professor of psychology at York University who has been studying brain dynamics for the past 40 years.

“The evidence shows that lifelong bilingualism has the capacity to change brains; it changes how people pay attention,” says Bialystok, an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care who received the Order of Canada in 2016.

“It’s like having a reserve gas tank. When there is neurological impairment, as with Alzheimer’s disease, bilingualism not only serves as a buffer, it offers up compensatory skills that can delay the onset of memory loss and confusion.”

Bialystok’s research further shows that the more proficient you are in a second language the more it helps to strengthen areas of the brain related to executive function, an umbrella term encompassing neurologically based skills involving problem solving, abstract thinking, goal setting and creativity.

This is because “the bilingual mind is in constant conflict,” Bialystok says. “For every word spoken aloud, the brain has to concentrate on the target language and suppress the other that is always bumping up against it. There is a constant need to select, and so the brain gets extra stimulation, which, research shows, is useful for the long run.”

Just how useful was revealed by a 2011 study involving approximately 500 patients with dementia. Half were bilingual and half spoke only one language. But all had the same degree of impairment at the time of diagnosis.

What Bialystok and her research team discovered is that onset symptoms occurred between three and four years later in bilinguals than they did in monoglots, on average at 78.6 years of age compared to 75.4 years.

CT scans of Alzheimer’s brains further showed that while bilingual patients had greater cerebral matter deterioration than their single language counterparts, “they were functioning at the same level as monolinguals,” Bialystok says. “Bilinguals could better compensate for having the disease and not betray the signs of their dementia until much later.”

But this is not to imply that if you are bilingual you won’t get Alzheimer’s.

“I never said it’s an inoculation,” counters Bialystok in response to critics who contested the results of her research in a controversial 2016 story in The Atlantic examining the science around bilingualism.

“There is no cure and no way of avoiding it. But what the research shows is that our minds are not fixed in stone and our experiences matter. I am studying one of those experiences. And to my mind bilingualism does benefit the brain as much as aerobic exercise and crossword puzzles. It can stall age-related deterioration.”

Say oui to that.

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