Bilingualism can have surprising neurological benefits

Science and Health

From improving social life to opening up more job opportunities, speaking two or more languages has always had advantages. Now, a new study has found that speaking two languages every day from a young age may protect against developing dementia later in life.

Researchers in Germany discovered that bilingual people scored better on tests of learning, memory, language and self-control than those who spoke only one language.

While researchers previously found a link between bilingualism and dementia, this new study, published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging evaluated how being bilingual at different stages of life affects cognition and brain structure in adulthood.

Protection against dementia

Researchers said that bilingualism may serve as a protective factor against cognitive decline and dementia. In particular, they observed that speaking two languages daily, especially in early and middle life, may have a long-term effect on cognition and its neural correlates.

In order to conduct their research, they examined 746 people aged 59 to 76, 40% of whom had no memory problems, while the other 60% were patients in memory clinics or people with complaints of confusion or memory loss. 

A brain (Illustrative) (credit: Amel Uzunovic/Pexels)

Participants were evaluated on a variety of vocabulary, memory, attention and calculation tests. Tasks included recalling something they read, spelling words backwards, and copying designs given to them.

Participants who reported using a second language daily at ages 13-30 or 30-65 showed higher scores in language, memory, focus, attention and decision-making abilities compared to those who weren’t bilingual.

In 2014, the Annals of Neurology stated that the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive decline would be examined. Researchers then compared intelligence tests administered to 853 11-year-old children in 1947 in Ireland withintelligence tests administered to the same group between 2008 to 2010 when they were aged seventy plus. The study showed that bilinguals did significantly better in tests as adults, especially in areas of general intelligence and reading skill.

The findings proved the protection of bilingualism on preservation against cognitive decline that’s characteristic of aging. Knowing three languages was also shown to have a better effect than two.

Researchers also discovered that the benefits of bilingualism aren’t dependent on gender, socioeconomic status or immigration. Among subjects who had a higher IQ in childhood, learning another language until the age of 18 seemed to offer more significant protection compared to those with lower intelligence who learned another language at a later age, but in both groups there was an advantage for bilinguals, even if they didn’t actively use the second language.

It’s not the vocabulary that counts

Scientists believe that bilinguals’ ability to switch between two languages is the key factor that makes them better at cognitive skills such as multitasking, emotion management and self-control, which ultimately protects them from dementia.

Researchers added that the advantages of being bilingual don’t derive from just knowing lots of words, but from the frequent transition between languages which requires high cognitive control to inhibit potential interference between languages.

The study only assessed the aspect of using two languages daily for long periods. Researchers emphasize that heightened cognitive abilities may also stem from other factors, such as the age at which the languages entered memory, demographic experiences or the lives of people who happen to be bilingual.