Bilingual Brains, Geriatric Gains: How learning a new language can help slow age-related cognitive decline by Donna Sherman
Learn a New Language!
Ask people what their number one fear of getting old is, and many will say they’re most afraid of “losing their minds.” Losing our memory, our ability to reason, our very sense of self, is a horror that makes Alzheimer’s and other dementias some of the most frightening diseases out there. Everyone knows that incidence of dementia increases with age, but scientific researchers is only slowly managing to untangle the reasons why some people get it, and some people don’t.
The Mayo Clinic lists several well-known risk factors that you can control, such as not smoking, limiting heavy alcohol use, and controlling weight and blood pressure. But did you know research shows that simply learning a new language can act as a buffer for resisting cognitive decline?
So what, in short, are the benefits of being bilingual?
The Benefits of Being Bilingual
At one point, people actually thought that teaching children two languages stunted intellectual growth! But while it’s true that there are some signs that bilingual children have temporary delays in some language skills, due to confusion between languages, or time spent switching between languages, they are usually able to catch up to their peers (Marian & Shook, 2012). In fact, it is precisely that exercise in mental switching that strengthens the brain in areas commonly affected by aging (Kroll, 2009; Ramscar et al., 2014).
Learning a second (or third, or fourth) language can help you improve your native tongue, and language skills in early life are associated with lower levels of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive declines in old age.
Scholars and artists have lots to say on the wonders of language learning.
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith
“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne
“There is one very important advantage of learning other languages that I think beats any gains in cognitive control or delays in the onset of dementia. When you learn other languages you can then actually speak those languages, read those literatures, talk to new people in their native language, eavesdrop on their conversations on the bus, order off the menu, pick up that gorgeous stranger in the piazza. I think that’s cooler than having a few extra points on the Wisconsin card-sorting task.” – Lera Boroditsky, psychologist at Stanford
One website asked older people why they chose to learn a new language. Here are some common reasons people gave:
Learning a language opens your mind, takes you deep into the history and flavour of a culture, makes travel more meaningful, and, of course, is an impressive skill to show off.
Then there’s the increase in social interaction that comes with attending new classes and being able to talk to a wider variety of people. Studies have shown that bilingualism can increase your empathy and make you smarter – speaking more than one language increases the ability of the brain to reason, make decisions, and switch between different tasks (Marian & Shook, 2012).
But you’re worried about your health. Specifically, your brain’s health. And learning a language takes care of that too! People who speak more than one language are diagnosed with dementia an average of 4 years later than people who speak only one (Bialystok et al., 2007). It may increase your cognitive reserve, a popular theory in determining ways to decrease cognitive decline (Stern, 2009). And Birdsong (2006) reports that second language use is “less automatic and less efficient” than native language use, and therefore declines in performance as a result of aging are “likely to show up earlier and to be more pronounced” in the second language. So your new language can act kind of like the canary in the coal mine when trying to detect early signs of cognitive decline.
“That’s great,” you might say, “But so many of these studies talk about learning a language before adulthood. What if it’s too late for me? What if it’s too hard?”
I have some exciting news for you.
It’s never too late.
“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 ageing brain.” – Dr. Thomas Bak, University of Edinburgh
Bak et al.’s 2014 study was widely reported by the press (some of those news reports are listed in the links at the end of the article). The study used participants from a pool of subjects from the Lothian Birth Cohort, who were first measured in 1947. The Cohort, which consisted of 1091 Edinburgh natives born in 1936, were 11 years old when they initially completed the Scottish Mental Survey (Scottish Council for Research in Education, 1947). Between 2008 and 2010, Bak and his colleagues followed up with 866 of them to test their hypothesis that “bilinguilism improves later-life cognition and delays the onset of dementia.” Some 853 participants (about half of whom were female) completed a bilingualism questionnaire, as well as cognitive tests including measures of memory, fluid intelligence (the ability to access and use knowledge), speed of processing, and vocabulary.
This study was notable because unlike many others testing similar hypotheses, it controlled for childhood intelligence, which many people worried might lead to bilingualism, rather than the other way around.
They found that people who spoke more than one language had better cognitive abilities in older age than their monolingual peers. What’s more, age of acquisition was not a factor! The measured areas that showed the greatest impact were general intelligence and reading.
Bak et al. said that the effect of learning a second language was “comparable to those reported for […] physical fitness, and (not) smoking” (Bak et al., 2014).
“It’s not the good memory that bilinguals have that is delaying cognitive decline. It’s their attention mechanism. Their ability to focus in on the details of language.” – Dr. Thomas Bak, University of Edinburgh
Although it is quite well known that second language acquisition gets harder as we age (you know how hard it felt to learn French in middle school, even!), harder does not mean impossible. You may never speak like a native, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be fluent (Birdsong, 2006; Doidge, 2007, pg 86-87).
We learn differently as adults than we did as children. Children learn languages implicitly, from being immersed in them. Ask a native speaker to explain the rules of their language’s grammar, and that person might have difficulty putting it into words. They know what sounds right, but they don’t know why. Adults are better at learning explicitly, studying and making sense of rules (Dekeyser, 2013). Because implicit learning happens implicitly, it doesn’t feel like work. But it is.
Let’s look at it this way: a baby is learning a language from scratch. It still needs to learn how to distinguish different types of sounds and then make them itself. It needs to learn body language and tone and to understand context. It needs to develop fine motor skills and gross motor skills. It needs to practice making the thoughts in its head become words and motions with its body. You don’t have to worry about any of that.
Apart from the base work you’ve already completed, think of all the stuff you can do that a kid can’t. You can choose which language to learn. You can choose how. You can form groups with people to practice, and travel to a new place and immerse yourself in the language and culture. You have control!
“…[L]earning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds.” – Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author (The Brain That Changes Itself, pg 86-87)
Caveats and Cautions
So learning a second language is hard. You know your native tongue like the back of your hand, which can highlight the effort involved in learning a new one.
Since it’s hard, motivation may be a factor, so choose a language you’re interested in. Maybe you want to learn Russian to read the classics in the original, or Korean to understand those K-dramas you enjoy. Pick something you’ll stick with! Some research has indicated that bilinguals who do not actively use one of their languages do not experience the same benefits as those who use both, although Bak et al.’s 2014 paper found the opposite.
Bak and his colleagues also admit that their bilingualism questionnaire, as a self-report measure, has inherent risks of bias (people misremember events or misrepresent themselves), and measured people’s view of their own fluency, rather than any objective measure of their language proficiency.
We also need to keep in mind that there is no magic bullet. These studies show trends among large groups of people, and so can’t predict the outcome of an individual (Calvo et al, 2015; see this article for an exhaustive list of problems with many studies of language acquisition).
Bak et al.’s study specifically raised some questions. Although they started with a large sample size of 853 people, only 262 participants in the study reported learning a second language. That’s still a pretty decent size, but while 195 learned the language before age 18, only 65 learned the language after 18. From over 800 people, the sample size for the particular group that we’re interested in has been whittled down to under 70, not even a tenth of the original.
Most importantly, “late” language acquisition, in most studies, refers to people who learned a new language after the age of 18. Although the samples theoretically could involve people from age 18 to age 112, the average seems to be around the early or late twenties, depending on the study. Age tends to blunt effect sizes, not eliminate them, (Yang et al., 2015), but I would love a large, longitudinal study focusing on people learning a new language in late adulthood (for example, age 50 and older).
I would also be interested in further research examining ways to teach language that are particularly effective for older adults, and see if any of these methods lead to better improvement in cognitive function, or bigger effect sizes.
Finally, what kind of language is preferable? One with the same alphabet, or a different one? Similar grammar, or something entirely foreign? And precisely how well do you have to learn it for it to ‘count’?
(See Antoniou et al., 2013 for more suggestions for future research.)
There are lots of questions that still need to be answered, and lots of areas left to explore, but let’s end on a high note:
Evidence has shown that multi-modal methods for slowing age-related cognitive decline, and strategies targeting specific activities of day to day living, are usually more effective than single-modal methods, or strategies targeting tasks you would only ever find in the lab. Language is something you use every day, and it leaks over into other areas of life – working memory, fine motor skills (writing and speech), visual and auditory functions, attention switching, and more, as we’ve discussed above. These are far reaching effects; getting better at a new language improves so many aspects of your brain! What’s more, Bak et al. found absolutely no negative effects of bilingualism. So why not learn a language? What have you got to lose?
This is all good news! You feel so excited! So motivated! Now what?
There are thousands of websites out there offering strategies for language learners of different types; why wait? Here are some to get you started.
Online language learning resources:
- This BBC series on learning a language, hosted by Alex Rawlings
- This TedTalk, book, and blog by Bennie Lewis
- Lindsay Does Languages
- The Benefits of Being Bilingual
- Am I Too Old to Learn a Language?
- More Languages, Better Brain
- Learning a Second Language as an Adult Keeps Your Brain Young
- Bilingual Benefits: Keep Your Mind Sharp, No Matter Your Age
- Myths About Bilingualism
- Mapping the Bilingual Brain
And, if you’re interested in some more technical info, this lecture on “Age effects in language learning: controversial, but crucial to understand,” by Robert Dekeyser.
Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Annals of neurology, 75(6), 959-963.
Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Penguin: New York
Snowdon, D. (2008). Aging with grace: What the nun study teaches us about leading longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives. Bantam.
Antoniou, M., Gunasekera, G. M., & Wong, P. C. (2013). Foreign language training as cognitive therapy for age-related cognitive decline: a hypothesis for future research. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(10), 2689-2698.
Arkin, S. (2007). Language-enriched exercise plus socialization slows cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 22(1), 62-77.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia,45(2), 459-464.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(4), 240-250.
Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning, 56(s1), 9-49.
Calvo, N., García, A. M., Manoiloff, L., & Ibáñez, A. (2015). Bilingualism and Cognitive Reserve: A Critical Overview and a Plea for Methodological Innovations. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 7.
DeKeyser, R. M. (2013). Age effects in second language learning: Stepping stones toward better understanding. Language Learning, 63(s1), 52-67.
Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L., & An, S. G. (2012). The foreign-language effect thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological science, 23(6), 661-668.
Kroll, J. F. (2009). The consequences of bilingualism for the mind and the brain. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), i-ii.
La Rue, A. (2010). Healthy brain aging: role of cognitive reserve, cognitive stimulation, and cognitive exercises. Clinics in geriatric medicine, 26(1), 99-111.
Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. A. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: anatomical changes in the human brain. Cortex,58, 301-324.
Lustig, C., Shah, P., Seidler, R., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2009). Aging, training, and the brain: a review and future directions. Neuropsychology review, 19(4), 504-522.
Mahncke, H. W., Connor, B. B., Appelman, J., Ahsanuddin, O. N., Hardy, J. L., Wood, R. A., … & Merzenich, M. M. (2006). Memory enhancement in healthy older adults using a brain plasticity-based training program: a randomized, controlled study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(33), 12523-12528.
Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.
Ramscar, M., Hendrix, P., Shaoul, C., Milin, P., & Baayen, H. (2014). The myth of cognitive decline: Non‐linear dynamics of lifelong learning. Topics in cognitive science, 6(1), 5-42.
Scottish Council for Research in Education. Mental Survey Committee. (1949). The Trend of Scottish Intelligence: A Comparison of the 1947 and 1932 Surveys of the Intelligence of Eleven-years-old Pupils (Vol. 30). University of London Press.
Stern, Y. (2009). Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia, 47(10), 2015-2028.
Yang, J., Gates, K. M., Molenaar, P., & Li, P. (2015). Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study.Journal of Neurolinguistics, 33, 29-49.