Study shows cognitive benefit of lifelong bilingualism

January 8, 2013, Society for Neuroscience

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 examines role of bilingualism in children's development

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 ...

Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

August 29, 2011
Babies and children are whizzes at learning a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays.

Recommended for you

Silence is golden when it comes to how our brains work

June 18, 2018
It's the comparative silence between the firing spikes of neurons that tells what they are really up to, scientists report.

Observing brain plasticity during cello training

June 15, 2018
Music acquisition provides an excellent model of neural plasticity, and has become a hot research subject in neurology. Music performance provides an unmatched array of neural complexities revealing how neural networks are ...

New discovery about the brain's water system may prove beneficial in stroke

June 15, 2018
Water is transported from the blood into the brain via an ion transporter, according to a new study on mice conducted at the University of Copenhagen. If the mechanism can be targeted with medicine, it may prove relevant ...

Study shows how intensive instruction changes brain circuitry in struggling readers

June 14, 2018
The early years are when the brain develops the most, forming neural connections that pave the way for how a child—and the eventual adult—will express feelings, embark on a task, and learn new skills and concepts.

When emotional memories intrude, focusing on context could help, study finds

June 14, 2018
When negative memories intrude, focusing on the contextual details of the incident rather than the emotional fallout could help minimize cognitive disruption and redirect the brain's resources to the task at hand, suggests ...

The neurons that rewrite traumatic memories

June 14, 2018
Memories of traumatic experiences can lead to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can destroy a person's life. It is currently estimated that almost a third of all people will suffer ...

0 comments

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.