Is Speaking Two Languages Good Your Brain?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

For many years, we have heard that bilingualism creates confusion in the brain, especially in children.  New research suggests this is not true.

In fact, two separate news items drawn from the same research have indicated possible benefits that accrue from bilingualism.  The research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggested a benefit to particular cognitive abilities as well as a possible benefit in delaying cognitive decline due to disease.

First, Penn State researcher Judith Kroll showed that speaking more than one language may benefit certain cognitive functions like organizing and prioritizing.

From a theoretical perspective, Dr. Kroll's claimed benefit makes sense.  Bilingual speakers, who have demonstrated the ability to have both languages readily at their command, must constantly monitor an internal competition over word choice and grammatical structure, while simultaneously composing their spoken message.  It stands to reason that they would have highly developed skills in the realms of organization and prioritization.

Second, York University researcher Ellen Bialystok, showed that using a second language throughout life, or perhaps even learning one late in life, might delay cognitive decline due to Alzheimer's disease. 

Dr. Bialystok compared 450 Alzheimer's patients, all of whom had the same level of impairment at the time of their diagnosis.  Half of the research subjects were bi-lingual and half were not.  When she analyzed the ages of the subjects, she found that the bilingual group was 4 to 5 years older, on average, than the monolingual group.  This suggests that the ability to speak a second language may have delayed the cognitive decline in the bilingual group.

Each day the evidence mounts.  Using your brain and staying intellectually engaged seems to play an important role in maintaining a high level of cognitive health.  Put down that remote and pick up a book.

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