Study shows cognitive benefit of lifelong bilingualism

January 8, 2013

Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the January 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals also show different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the study found.

The findings suggest the value of regular stimulating mental activity across the lifetime. As people age, —the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances—and related "executive" functions decline. Recent studies suggest lifelong bilingualism may reduce this decline—a boost that may stem from the experience of constantly switching between languages. However, how differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals was previously unclear.

In the current study, Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, used (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (ages 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual seniors as they completed a task that tested their cognitive flexibility. The researchers found that both groups performed the task accurately. However, bilingual seniors were faster at completing the task than their monolingual peers despite expending less energy in the —an area known to be involved in task switching.

"This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity—in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis—and ," said John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. "The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals."

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.

Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

"This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors," Gold said. "Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging."

Explore further: Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

Related Stories

Study examines role of bilingualism in children's development

February 8, 2012

A new study on children who are raised bilingual examined the effects on children's development of growing up speaking two languages. The study found that different factors were responsible for the language- and non-language-related ...

Being bilingual wards off symptoms of dementia

March 29, 2012

New research explains how speaking more than one language may translate to better mental health. A paper published by Cell Press in the March 29th issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences examines how being bilingual ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.