Stud­ies show learn­ing more than one lan­guage is good for the brain,


Maria Christina Cuervo put her 10-year-old son Tomás in French im­mer­sion classes — but not just so he would learn to speak the lan­guage.

Cuervo knew that learn­ing an­other lan­guage would not only open cul­tural and so­cial doors for her son, a Grade 4 stu­dent at John Fisher Ju­nior Pub­lic School in Toronto, but would also be healthy for his mind.

“If you speak two or more lan­guages it trains your brain more,” said Cuervo, a Span­ish and lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto. “It’s like be­ing more of an ath­lete.”

The “work­out” hap­pens when the brain has to jug­gle com­pet­ing vo­cab­u­lar­ies. For ex­am­ple, an English and French speaker has to de­cide be­tween say­ing “cat” or “chat” each time they see one.

“You are think­ing of words or struc­tures in two dif­fer­ent lan­guages, so you have to sup­press one to speak in only one lan­guage,” Cuervo said. Do­ing this can strengthen the part of the brain that helps us process in­for­ma­tion and fo­cus, she added.

Dif­fer­ent re­search stud­ies show that bilin­guals are bet­ter de­ci­sion mak­ers, can ex­pe­ri­ence a later on­set of de­men­tia, are more per­cep­tive, or think dif­fer­ently.

Last year’s Os­car-win­ning movie Ar­rival tack­led a ver­sion of that last idea — tak­ing au­di­ences on a quest with its star lin­guist (played by Amy Adams, whose char­ac­ter was in­formed by ac­tual lin­guists such as McGill Uni­ver­sity’s Jes­sica Coon) to com­mu­ni­cate with alien “hep­tapods.”

The film il­lus­trates (while tak­ing a bit of cre­ative lib­erty) what sci­en­tists know as the Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis — a dis­puted the­ory that sug­gests that lan­guage can change the way we think and view the world around us.

This and other the­o­ries about the ef­fect lan­guage has on a person’s mind are not uni­ver­sally agreed upon by re­searchers, some worry posi- tive re­sults in­di­cated in lab tests don’t trans­late into no­tice­able changes in real life.

“The ef­fort doesn’t match the goal,” said Stanka Fit­neva, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Queen’s Uni­ver­sity who re­searches the con­nec­tions be­tween lan­guage, cog­ni­tion and cul­ture. While she agreed that learn­ing a lan­guage is ad­van­ta­geous for one’s brain, she noted that it might not be the eas­i­est route for those who are ex­clu­sively af­ter the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits it can of­fer. Less-de­mand­ing ac- tiv­i­ties and games (for ex­am­ple, Si­mon Says) she said, could give the brain’s ‘ex­ec­u­tive func­tion’ (the part Cuervo was talk­ing about that help us plan and pri­or­i­tize) a work­out in a sim­i­lar way.

Ellen Bi­a­lystok, a psy­chol­ogy pro- fes­sor at York Uni­ver­sity who is rec­og­nized among lan­guage and brain ex­perts as one of the top re­searchers look­ing at the im­pact of bilin­gual­ism on the brain, says there are sig­nif­i­cant cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits (and aside from that, cul­tural and so­cial ones) from learn­ing a lan­guage.

But she thinks the big­gest pay­off emerges later in life.

Bi­a­lystok pointed to a grow­ing area of re­search, in­clud­ing some of her own, that has found peo­ple who speak more than one lan­guage can de­lay the on­set of dif­fer­ent types of de­men­tia, in­clud­ing Alzheimer’s for sev­eral years.

“This is be­cause the brain works dif­fer­ently, it uses dif­fer­ent re­gions, it re­quires dif­fer­ent amounts of en­ergy,” she said. “It’s a more ef­fi­cient brain.”

In one of her own stud­ies pub­lished in Neu­rol­ogy, an Amer­i­can peer-re­viewed jour­nal, Bi­a­lystok along with two other re­searchers from Toronto’s Bay­crest Health Sciences looked at more than 200 peo­ple with Alzheimer’s: about half were bilin­gual and half only spoke one lan­guage. The study found bilin­guals ex­pe­ri­enced symp­toms of the dis­ease five years later and were di­ag­nosed about four years later than their sin­gle lan­guage-speak­ing peers.

Bi­a­lystok said she be­lieves adults and el­derly peo­ple should con­sider learn­ing a lan­guage, even if they have no plan to mas­ter it. It’s a process she de­scribes as both dif­fi­cult and stim­u­lat­ing and one she says has “all the right fea­tures for pro­tect­ing brain health.”

Chan­dan Narayan, a lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor at York, said he’s cau­tious not to “over­play” the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of be­ing bilin­gual, but still be­lieves learn­ing mul­ti­ple lan­guages is worth­while.

“There is no doubt that be­ing bilin­gual, in terms of a hu­man­ist per­spec­tive, makes us bet­ter ci­ti­zens,” he said, not­ing that by speak­ing more than one lan­guage, peo­ple can make the world a smaller place by be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate with more peo­ple. He thinks the so­cial, cul­tural and cog­ni­tive im­pacts to­gether make a strong case for one to learn more than one lan­guage.


Maria Christina Cuervo be­lieves in the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of learn­ing more than one lan­guage.

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