According to research published in the Annals of Neurology, bilingualism even when the second language is learned in adulthood may slow down age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said Dr. Thomas Bak of the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology. “These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”
The study began in 1947 when participants were 11 years old. Data was then collected periodically until those same individuals reached the age of 70. Out of more than 800 test subjects, approximately 200 were able to speak two or more languages, and when the final information was collected, those people who were bilingual exceeded expectations particularly in the areas of reading and general intelligence compared with those who only spoke English.
The results were striking even among individuals who never became completely proficient in their second languages. “Many never reach native-like perfection,” the researchers add. “For this population, our results are particularly relevant. Bilingualism in its broad definition, even if acquired in adulthood, might have beneficial effects on cognition independent of childhood intelligence.”
This latest study only adds to the already established benefits of bilingualism. Previous research has found a number of mental health benefits to speaking multiple languages, particularly for children, including reduced levels of anxiety, loneliness, and poor self-esteem, as well as a reduction of negative externalizing behaviors such as arguing, fighting, or acting impulsively.
Individuals who are bilingual also have better mental task-switching abilities compared to those who only speak one language. This means the brain is able to make faster connections and fewer errors.
From the perspective of brain development, is very beneficial,” Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “Our brain has structural plasticity, meaning it changes and adapts based on what we are exposed to in the environment, so learning multiple languages actually serves as an enriching experience that optimizes the capacity of the brain.”
Bilingualism is viewed as an effective way to keep the brain working at optimal capacity, proving that there is some truth to the old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”