Benefits of a bilingual brain

Dr. Ana Inés Ansaldo
Credit: Photo courtesy of Bonesso-Dumas.

The bilingual advantage: A lifetime of cognitive benefits revealed

July 6, 2016

Professor Ellen Bialystok from York University and Professor Ana Inés Ansaldo from the University of Montreal have found that being fluent in more than one language, particularly from an early age, has significant benefits.

With support from Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIIHR), Professors Ellen Bialystok and Ana Inés Ansaldo have found that knowing more than one language enhances our ability to concentrate and may also generate a cognitive reserve (or intelligence reserve) which protects the brain for several years against the onset of age-related cognitive decline.

Cognitive reserve: The extent to which the brain can sustain damage, as from Alzheimer's disease, stroke, alcohol overuse and head injury, without affecting intellectual capacity. It has been shown that people with high literacy, educational levels and IQ will tend to have a higher cognitive reserve than the average individual. It is believed that the cognitive reserve can be sustained by life-long serious mental activity and the maintenance of physical fitness.
Source: Collins Dictionary of Medicine

Similarly, an enhanced ability to concentrate has also been found in bilingual adults, which contributes to a well-functioning memory.

While the connection between bilingualism and enhanced brain power is clear, the cause remains a mystery. One possibility is that speaking two languages may actually increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain and keep connections healthy, factors believed to also help ward off dementia.

Having demonstrated that bilingualism boosts brain power across the lifespan by keeping our minds fit, Drs. Bialystok and Ansaldo's discoveries are now leading to a clearer understanding of how the brain processes speech and other communication abilities, offering greater insight into how bilingualism sculpts the brain.

The bilingual experience shapes the brain in such a way that it copes better with ageing and age-related illnesses. For example, bilinguals have more white matter than monolinguals; white matter allows information to travel across the different parts of the brain, and is particularly affected by Alzheimer’s disease. This may explain why bilinguals seem to better tolerate damage, without showing the expected cognitive decline.

Dr. Ellen Bialystok
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ellen Bialystok

Neural plasticity keeps the mind supple, even as we age

Mechanisms in the nervous system involved in neural plasticity, or mental suppleness, are thought to support cognition and thinking.  The bilingual brain is able to efficiently manage two languages with relative ease, determining which language should be used in any given situation.

Dr. Bialystok believes that this language traffic-control system helps the brain to sharpen and to retain its ability to focus, all while ignoring information analyzed and deemed irrelevant to the task at hand.

"Although regions of the brain are specialized for certain functions, cognitive performance is based on networks of brain activity that go across these divisions. Neural plasticity is the rewiring or reorganizing of these brain networks in response to experience or to some compromise to the usual network. For example, loss of function in one region because of a stroke may lead to rewiring of that function into other regions."

Dr. Ellen Bialystok

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