A Second Language May Help Sustain the Brain

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by Jason von Stietz - June 20, 2014

Photo Credit: Getty Images


Could learning more than one language help you to think more clearly in later life? A researcher at the University of Edinburgh Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology examined IQ scores across the lifespan of those who spoke only one language and those who learned more than one. Those were bilingual performed better on cognitive tests than those who were monolingual, even if they had not scored better on tests decades earlier. Furthermore, bilingual study participants who suffered dementia began experiencing symptoms four to 5 years later than those who were monolingual. A recent article in The Washington Post discussed the University of Edinburgh researcher's study:


In his new study, older bilinguals performed better on cognitive tests than monolinguals, even when they had not scored better on intelligence testing decades earlier. That means that, at least in part, learning another language does predict brain health in old age, Bak said.


“Probably the causality is going in both directions, but we showed that there is certainly an effect of bilingualism that cannot be explained by previous differences,” he said.


He and his team used a data set including 853 Scottish participants who were given an intelligence test at age 11 and retested between 2008 and 2010 while in their 70s.


Of those, 262 had learned a language in addition to English, most before age 18, though only 90 were actively using the second language in 2008.


Even taking early intelligence scores into account, people who had learned a second language scored higher on reading, verbal fluency and general intelligence in old age than those who never had.


The relationship was the same for the 65 people who learned their second language after age 18, and seemed to get stronger with third, fourth and fifth languages, according to results published in the Annals of Neurology.


“I think it’s a study that could only have been done really with this cohort, this Scottish group,” said Fergus Craik, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto. “I’m not surprised at the effect, but it’s excellent to have this evidence.”


There’s always a question of which comes first, bilingualism or better brains, said Craik, who was not involved in Bak’s study. People by and large become bilingual not because of interest or intelligence but because they have to.


Learning a second language improves certain mental functions, mostly those connected to the frontal lobe of the brain, Craik said. “It does improve fluid intelligence and ‘executive functioning,’ because you have to control the two languages you know,” he said. “While you communicate in one language, you’ve got to manage and control the other language.”


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