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New study shows brain benefits of bilingualism.

Posted by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 11:24 AM
  • 16 Replies

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism

An Indian schoolgirl dressed as Telugu Talli poses for the camera during a celebration in Hyderabad, home to a study that seems to show the onset of dementia is delayed for people who speak more than one language.

Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

The largest study so far to ask whether speaking two languages might delay the onset of dementia symptoms in bilingual patients as compared to monolingual patients has reported a robust result. Bilingual patients suffer dementia onset an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only a single language.

While knowledge of a protective effect of bilingualism isn't entirely new, the present study significantly advances scientists' knowledge. Media reports emphasize the size of its cohort: 648 patients from a university hospital's memory clinic, including 391 who were bilingual. It's also touted as the first study to reveal that bilingual people who are illiterate derive the same benefit from speaking two languages as do people who read and write. It also claims to show that the benefit applies not only to Alzheimer's sufferers but also people with frontotemporal and vascular dementia.

Only when I read the research report itself, though, published in the journal Neurology and written by Suvarna Alladi and 7 co-authors, did I realize fully the brilliance of conducting this study inHyderabad, India.

That choice of location, I believe, lends extra credibility to the study's results.

Here's why. India, as the researchers note, is a nation of linguistic diversity. In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.

The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:

In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.

In other words, thanks in large part to the study's cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.

What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:

The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.

Intriguingly, when a patient speaks three (or more) languages, no extra benefits accrue neurologically. Speaking a single language beyond one's native tongue is enough to do the trick.

So, now, my almost-monolingual brain is jealous.

I do know some conversational French, and I squeaked by speaking and comprehending enough Swahili to be polite and interactive while living in Kenya. But I've regretted not working up to full fluency in a second language. (As the "Learn to Speak Italian" tapes strewn around my house demonstrate, I haven't given up on this goal.)

The sounds of multiple languages swirling around me when I visitNew York or Paris are enchanting, and I enjoy discussing with bilinguals the claims that switching between languages allowsdifferent personality traits to emerge within a single individual.

Being bilingual opens up new worlds of global connection and understanding, and almost certainly allows some degree of flexibility in personal expression, too.

Now we know, more concretely and convincingly than before, that there's a brain benefit to bilingualism, too.


Barbara's most recent book is How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 11:24 AM
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Replies (1-10):
rfurlongg
by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 11:44 AM
3 moms liked this

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 

Josie_P
by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 2:19 PM

That's awesome. My kids speak English and Russian at home and my son goes to an international kindgergarten where he's learning French. Good to see it's all worth it!

Donna6503
by Platinum Member on Nov. 29, 2013 at 2:50 PM
This


Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 


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Sunshine257
by Bronze Member on Nov. 29, 2013 at 2:55 PM
We live in Sweden my son will be trilingual he is bilingual now. He speaks Danish and English and will be in school where they speak Swedish. So I am pleased to see there are benefits.
turtle68
by Mahinaarangi on Nov. 29, 2013 at 3:28 PM


Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 

All my family ...siblings and nieces and nephews are bilingual.  Three SIL speak english as a second language.  My friends are all bilingual.  One thing I found strange about them all in particular...is that they all think in thier mother tongue, doesnt matter what language they are speaking.

Do you think in one language when you speak in another...or do your boys?  

Aestas
by Gold Member on Nov. 29, 2013 at 3:43 PM

What are your second and third languages? And where did you live?

Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 


Aestas
by Gold Member on Nov. 29, 2013 at 3:51 PM

I definitely agree that bilingualism isn't encouraged in the US the way it is in other countries. My oldesr daughter was fully bilingual when she was younger, as I sent her to a daycare/preschool program starting at age 1 1/2 which was taught entirely in Spanish. She's lost it now from lack of use, but I still think it was good for her developing brain. My hope is that she'll pick it back up much more easily than if she'd never had it.

I used to be somewhat fluent in French (I lived in a former French colony as a kid), but it's deteriorated badly from lack of practice. I spent a summer studying in France in college, though, and found it came back to me pretty quickly. I've also picked up some Spanish from working with Spanish speakers over the years, but I speak it pretty poorly. I'd like to be fluent in both languages one day, and pick up a fourth language that's totally different (not Germanic or Latin-based).

rfurlongg
by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 3:56 PM
1 mom liked this
Portuguese and Spanish. I lived in Brazil, Portugal, and England. I also spent large amounts of time (2 -3 months at a time) in Argentine.

Quoting Aestas:

What are your second and third languages? And where did you live?

Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 


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rfurlongg
by on Nov. 29, 2013 at 4:14 PM
I think and dream in both English and Portuguese. I learned them both from birth. My mother only spoke to me in Portuguese and I was only allowed to reply in Portuguese (although she spoke 3languages as well) and my father did the same with English (he speaks 5 languages). When I speak in Spanish I think 1st in Portuguese then translate to Spanish. My children think in English. They really only speak Portuguese / Spanish when we are in south America or when I make them speak it here.

Quoting turtle68:


Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 

All my family ...siblings and nieces and nephews are bilingual.  Three SIL speak english as a second language.  My friends are all bilingual.  One thing I found strange about them all in particular...is that they all think in thier mother tongue, doesnt matter what language they are speaking.

Do you think in one language when you speak in another...or do your boys?  

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Sisteract
by Whoopie on Nov. 30, 2013 at 2:30 PM

I agree.

Quoting rfurlongg:

I grew up speaking 2 languages fluently and interchangeably, plus regular exposure to a third. As am adult I cam speak, read, and write all three well. I grew up overseas. I have been trying to encourage my boys to be bilingual. Although they can speak a 2nd language, I do not find interchangeable for them. I feel the culture here doesn't encourage bilingualism as readily as other countries do. 


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