I recently read an article talking about how bilingualism tends to push back the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I looked into it a bit more and it turns out to be quite old news. For the last decade, different research has been showing that those who speak more than one language on a daily basis have increased cognitive function in old age. Specific experiments have looked into the effects of bilingualism on executive control tasks in older people, and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Multilingual speakers fare better in every case, not to mention that they have also been shown to be better at multitasking at any age.
It’s interesting to see how different news sources report this type of research. You can see for yourself the contrast between the sober article in The Guardian from 2011, going through the experimental results and quoting the researcher, and the overblown claims of NPR from a few months ago, stating inaccurate things like “speaking more than one language could prevent Alzheimer’s” or “save you from Alzheimer’s disease”. It can’t, if it’s in your genes it’s in your genes, but the added brain function of bilinguals can better fight the damage and delay the symptoms. The New York Times opted for this engaging interview with the research professor in Toronto responsible for the latest positive findings.
Of course, all this only works if in old age you are actively speaking more than one language on a more or less daily basis, not if you learned French in school and use it when you go on holiday to Nice once a year. The best thing then is to learn two languages from the start. It was once commonly thought that bilingual babies would somehow get more confused, and the idea of teaching them two languages was frowned upon. Now we realise that monolingualism is the unusual state of affairs in terms of our history. In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talks about how most tribes-people learn to speak at least 3-4 languages through necessary interaction with neighbouring people, be it play, trade or marriage.
Coincidentally, Diamond also reviewed some of the academic articles mentioned above for Science and then spoke to the BBC about it all a few years ago. So what advantages do bilingual babies, kids and grown-up kids have? Here are some of the reasons why bilingual is better:
- more flexibility when dealing with changes of rules
- better at focusing in confusing situations
- better at processing sounds in noisy environments and tuning in to important information
- augmented attention, inhibition and encoding of sound
- better at prioritising tasks and multitasking
- better at editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important detail
- better at complex spatial reasoning tasks
- better at learning phonological patterns in a new language
- and last but not least, according to the Canadians, bilinguals bring in more income