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.