2 languages make your brain buff
February 18th, 2011
01:44 PM ET

2 languages make your brain buff

If you had any doubts about exposing your child - or yourself - to a foreign language, there's more evidence than ever that being bilingual has enormous benefits for your brain.

Scientists presented their research supporting this idea Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science  annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

As the human body begins its natural decline in old age, bilinguals seem to maintain better cognitive function, said Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Ontario. This is the case even for people with dementia. Bialystok and colleagues have studied many Alzheimer's patients, both monolinguals and bilinguals. They found that bilinguals were on average four to five years older than monolinguals at comparable points of neurological impairment.

Once Alzheimer's disease begins to compromise the brain, it appears that bilinguals can continue to function even though there’s damaged tissue, she said.

So what's going on? One theory is that language learning is an example of "cognitive reserve." It something that keeps the mind active in the same way as puzzles and games do, and works toward compensating for the build-up of dementia-causing pathology in the brain, Bialystok said.

In terms of starting language learning in middle or old age, the likelihood of becoming truly fluent in a new tongue is low, but it seems that every little bit helps in preventing cognitive decline, she said. And proficiency may be more important than age of acquisition, said Judith Kroll, researcher at Pennsylvania State University, before the conference.

Bilinguals are also better than monolinguals at multitasking, Kroll said. Juggling their languages helps bilinguals ignore irrelevant information and prioritize tasks better than those who only can only speak on tongue, she has found in her research. That makes sense considering that when a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. That means that speakers of two languages are constantly inhibiting one language in favor of another, which perhaps enhances their overall attentional skills.

Why is it so hard for adults to learn a new language, compared with kids? The answer might not lie entirely in the brain. The social, educational, and other circumstantial conditions are different when an adult gets exposure to language, Bialystok said. As a child, learning a language is pretty much all you do. Adults can't devote as much time or attention to the experience of picking up a new tongue.

"It’s a change we can deal with as adults if there’s sufficient time and opportunity," she said.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Babies exposed to two languages throughout pregnancy, or who hear two languages in their first days of life, don’t confuse their languages, said Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia. The scientific evidence suggests bilingual and monolingual kids have similar language development milestones; it appears that children learning two languages do not experience delays in this regard generally.

There is, however, some research suggesting that the competition that’s produced by this mental juggling may introduce a delay in processing. But it’s so small that it’s not something that would be noticeable consciously, Kroll said. It appears that the benefits of being bilingual outweigh the costs.

What are you waiting for? Check out these resources for learning a new language online.

soundoff (466 Responses)
  1. Noro

    Great article! All the adults in my family speak four languages, and I feel sorry for all the redneck Americans that look down on knowing other cultures. It's a shame that i have to share this great country with such ignorant trash

    February 19, 2011 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lindalou

      chill out! no one looks down on bilingual people in America as long as you speak the language of this country in public. We get paranoid when someone speaks in code that can be conspired to be detrimental to our country.

      February 20, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse |
  2. Deborah

    I think most people who speak more than one language have always known they were using more of their brain. Monolingual people assume that learning another language, say Spanish, is unremarkable because they think it is simply a matter of switching out an English word for a Spanish word. But it is so much more than that. Language carries a lot of history, culture, geography, politics and other human elements. By learning another language, a person is opening himself or herself up to infinite new possibilities when it comes to learning more about humanity and our common planet.

    February 19, 2011 at 23:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Artieboy

    This is a great article. Unfortunately everyone goes off on a tangent claiming that the rest of the world is multi-lingual while the US is mono-lingual using family or friends as "proof". I'm going out on a limb here...there are monolingual people all over the world, while the country that has the most languages spoken on a daily basis is the beautiful USA! Hooray for our multi-lingual country.

    And personally I don't believe language is something that you learn (i.e. it has an end). Language (speaking, listening, reading, writing) is a life long process.

    Adios and a la prochaine

    February 20, 2011 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Gustavo Lacerda

    You have a typo: the researcher is Janet Werker, not "Weker".

    February 20, 2011 at 01:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Justina

    The US-born Americans should really learn non-European second languages. They will discover how other nations view America in first hand and come out of the stupid naive political correctness and also stop bashing their presidents ignorantly. Get some nationalism or get dissolved to pieces, Americans.

    February 20, 2011 at 02:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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      April 9, 2012 at 00:57 | Report abuse |
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      April 14, 2012 at 15:22 | Report abuse |
  6. Leevitalone

    While spending an incredible year studying (French, of course) in Paris, I was in a restaurant across from the Paris Opera. I heard an American woman say, "Wouldn't you think they would speak English!" That said it all.

    February 20, 2011 at 07:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. leila

    глядя на великого соседа, иногда подумываешь, а не пора ли учить китайский? Looking at the great neighbor, sometimes we think, whether it is time to learn the Chinese language?

    February 20, 2011 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. frank

    1) learning other languages is good, great, excellent, highly recommended. 2) Spanish is beautiful, but it's sooo frustrating because there seems to be so many kinds. I listen to Spanish radio in South Florida all the time. One guy I understand fine; the next guy, nada... Go figure. 3) Part of the resistence to Spanish, in particular, comes from Americans who are conscious of the fact that many of their own parents, grandparents, greatgrandparents very intentionally guided their children away from their native German, Italian, Greek, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, etc, etc. into English in order to merge their families into one new unified culture. Also, modern immigrants from virtually all other language backgrounds STILL behave that way. Therefore many people wonder why Spanish gets special treatment and they feel threatened that Spanish could become a second national language. They fear that a country with two languages will be divided. (Multi-lingual countries - e.g. Belgium, Ruanda, Canada, many others, even Spain itself with Catalan and Basque - suffer from their bilingualism). English as the one common language played/plays a large part in forging a new national American idendity. Learning English, for most immigrants, was a committment to the 'new country' and to their families' future in it. Those were the days when coming to America was a huge effort and a one-way trip. Nowadays the new 'multi-cultural' model - along with modern transportation and communication technology - has replaced the old 'melting pot' model, and many immigrants like to keep one foot in the old culture and one foot in the new.

    Oh well, things change... It makes no sense for people here to be bashing and insulting each other.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. alee

    Although I feel lucky to know two languages fluently, I have to admit that "processing" the language WAS a bit slower while growing up. Learning two languages made me feel that I was not perfect in either one – therefore it took me longer to catch up with my peers in class and when listening to someone speak. I have no problems now but school was more difficult for that reason. Perhaps they can do more research on that. I know many parents that refuse to teach their children their origin's language because of the same reason. They too felt that they lagged behind their peers in school in the English language because of it. Will you have your kids compromise English grades for the sake of knowing two languages?

    February 20, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. scir91onYouTube

    i am an arrogant american and all i need is english in my life. you can keep your other languages. america is superior to everyone else. why should i want to learn a language of a country who can't compete with 1st world america?

    February 20, 2011 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steph

      It is closed minded people like you that cause the problems the world encounters on a day to day basis. Open your mind. Also, in case you haven't noticed, the U.S. is headed downward-the result of arrogant and greedy people!

      April 1, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse |
    • Jake alaya

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      January 20, 2012 at 10:58 | Report abuse |
    • Leslie

      America isn't as great as it used to be. Communication with other countries is essential, Many of those countries have their students learning English. I don't see why us as Americans can't put a little effort into learning their language as well. I am bilingual and I can say that I am not satisfied with knowing only 2 languages. Its sad that theres a lot of people you can't communicate with. Learning another language also helps you understand their culture, and it can only benefit you. I will definetly try to learn a third maybe even a fourth language!

      April 2, 2012 at 10:11 | Report abuse |
  11. flavia

    Also, do not forget the insurmountable benefits of being a bimodal bilingual/multilingual. Add a signed language to your repertoire of languages and you have benefits that are the same for bilinguals but also benefits that spoken language bilinguals do not have.

    February 20, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. michelle - san francisco

    you can train your brain to do anything and switching from one language to another is just one of those things it can do. I am from Europe. I speak 5 languages – 3 of them very fluently and 2 are dormants (not being used as much) but can be revived at any time. Every student in this country should at least study 1 foreign language because it is not only learning the words it is learning about other cultures and in this global world, it has become an absolute necessity to understand what and how other people on the planet live their every day life.

    February 20, 2011 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. T party

    I am learning Spainish. My wife only speaks Spanish to the kids and I only speak English to them. They are both totally Billingual.. I wish I would have started learning such an important much earlier in life.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lindalou

    I don't buy this theory at all. My mom, my grandmother and my uncle are/were all bilingual. Mom & grandma have passed both diagnosed as having Alzheimer's. The uncle is in the throws of it and is bilingual. Its genetic. To make a statement such as this is ridiculous. Its like anything else, sometimes the shoe fits and sometimes not.

    February 20, 2011 at 20:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sean

    どうして皆さんはアメリカの悪口を言っていますかな? この記事はアメリカの文化ではなく、面白い研究の結果に集中しているだけですよ。

    February 20, 2011 at 20:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Ruth L

    @One More Reason – I agree with you. Knowing more than one language, especially if that includes a Romance language will be of great help with the placement exams that most high school students have to take to get into college. Everyone knows that English is a hybrid languge consisting of Germanic, Latin, and Greek. I know for a fact that being fluent in Spanish helped me, and continues to help me to understand words that I don't already know. If you understand basic roots of words, then you can sometimes figure out the meaning without even cracking open a dictionary.

    February 21, 2011 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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  18. Gilbert, short for Gilbert

    Actually, I am an American birthed by a French immigrant. It is sickening to see how quick people are to pull the race card! I was just trying to bring a little humor to the situation. I apologize for your lack of a sense of humor.

    February 21, 2011 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Charity Dell

    Most of us were raised in a monolingual setting in the United States, and unfortunately access to foreign language instruction at the pre-school–middle school levels was limited either to the wealthy–who ALWAYS educated their children in French and other languages and prepared them for their global, jet-set lifestyle–or just the top 10% of children in middle–upper class public school districts. I had a fifth-grade teacher who taught us some oral French every day, and I thought it was cool we could count to 100 and use little greetings. I never did buy into this "language window" theory about "optimal times to learn language", etc. The "optimal time" to learn languages is NOW, or WHENEVER YOU WANT TO LEARN THEM! All humans were born with the God-given capacity to create language, learn language, change/evolve the languages they use; we were BORN to be multilingual. There is no language that a human created that cannot be learned by another human–so go ahead, you can learn any of the 7000 languages on this planet (460 of them in the United States) spoken and/or written
    by the other 6 billion humans who inhabit our Big Blue Marble called "Earth." Don't let fear and "language theories" deprive you of your God-given heritage to be MULTILINGUAL–and you can TRAIN YOUR BRAIN as long as you have enough health and strength to THINK! Language learning can ALSO be a life-long hobby, and your brain will thank you!

    February 22, 2011 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Matt

    Im proud that i know English, Arabic, and some French... if it doesn't do u any long term good... it surely makes ur day to day encounters easy.

    February 26, 2011 at 05:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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    bored doin homework...i can speak english and french..

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  24. boyliker212

    im proud that i speak spanish english and some french and im only 14 so boo yah:)

    January 20, 2012 at 11:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Laura

    I can speak English and Lithuanian and i am quite proud. Right now i am learning french and i would like to learn Polish. Languages are fun, everyone should be able to speak at least two.

    March 2, 2012 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
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