I remember very well my own journey into learning a foreign language for the first time. I was back home in Mexico, and I was studying English at school. I was mostly learning vocabulary and grammar, but at that point I didn’t need to use it to communicate. It proved more useful when I started reading articles published in English and when I went abroad on an undergraduate exchange programme in California. That was the real step into a more systematic language-learning journey for me. I am still building up English skills every day, but now I am also learning a new language: Italian. What my personal experience has taught me about language learning is that it needs to be built up over time and through practice. But as a researcher working on multilingualism and language learning, I think it is also useful to look at it from a scientific perspective. Let me explain:
As something that builds over time, bilingualism, and more precisely life-long bilingualism, has been associated with a number of significant benefits. It has been shown to have a positive impact on certain aspects of cognition, and in adults, reports are that life-long bilingualism may delay the onset of symptoms of dementia, aid with better recovery after stroke (for more on this see my earlier blog, ‘On the effects of bi-/multilingualism’ and also for example Alladi et al., 2013), and help with certain aspects of cognitive ageing (Bak, et al., 2014). A number of explanations have been considered to account for these results. For example, the concept of cognitive reserve has been frequently applied to explain the positive effects of bilingualism in ageing and conditions such as dementia. Cognitive reserve refers to the mechanisms that would allow the brain to better cope with brain diseases or ageing (you can learn more about the cognitive reserve in Stern, 2012 and from this Age UK resource). Researchers have studied the extent to which certain lifestyle experiences could be associated with cognitive reserve and these include, among others, leisure activities, physical activities, social interaction, and stimulating activities. In light of these studies, bilingualism has thus been proposed as an activity that could contribute to building cognitive reserve.
Is it ever too late to start a new challenging activity such as learning a new language? Although research is still underway, there are already various indicators to support the beneficial cognitive effects of language learning, in particular in some attentional domains. In fact, such benefits can still occur even when a new language is learnt in adulthood, after an intensive short period of time, and importantly, could be retained through continuous practice (Bak, et al., 2016).
But why is language learning so special? Wouldn’t we be better off doing other activities such as doing ‘brain puzzles’? The answer seems to depend on the activity at stake. Activities that appear to contribute to shaping better brain health are those that are more challenging and stimulating, build over time, improve through continuous practice, foster social interaction and are enjoyable (e.g., Global Council on Brain health, 2018; Valenzuela & Sachdev, 2009; Bak in Age UK). And so, language learning seems to tick many of the boxes needed for an activity to be considered a useful tool for healthier brain ageing. Although scientists are still researching into whether some stimulating activities may provide stronger effects over others, learning a new language can surely be a positive addition to the range of every-day challenging activities that any of us can start, even in adulthood.
As we are building our understanding of lifestyle activities that can have a positive impact on brain health, here at Strand 6 of MEITS, our research aims to provide evidence-based practice of the impact on health and well-being of learning languages in late adulthood.
Alladi, S., Bak, T. H., Duggirala, V., Surampudi, B., Shailaja, M., Shukla, A. K., ... & Kaul, S. (2013). Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. Neurology, 81(22), 1938-1944.
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.
Bak, T. H., Long, M. R., Vega-Mendoza, M., & Sorace, A. (2016). Novelty, challenge, and practice: the impact of intensive language learning on attentional functions. PloS one, 11(4), e0153485.
Stern Y. (2012) Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer's disease. Lancet Neurol. 2012;11(11):1006–1012.
Valenzuela, M., & Sachdev, P. S. (2009). Harnessing brain and cognitive reserve for the prevention of dementia. Indian journal of psychiatry, 51(Suppl1), S16.
Stern, Y. (last updated: 2017, September). Cognitive Reserve. Age UK. Retrieved from https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/mind-body/staying-sharp/thinking-skills-change-with-age/cognitive-reserve/#
Bak, T. (last updated: 2018, September). Can speaking multiple languages keep you sharp? Age UK. Retrieved from https://www.ageuk.org.uk/northern-ireland/information-advice/health-wellbeing/mind-body/staying-sharp/looking-after-your-thinking-skills/speaking-more-than-one-language/
Global Council on Brain Health (2018). “Brain Health and Mental Well-Being: GCBH Recommendations on Feeling Good and Functioning Well.” Available at
Vega-Mendoza, M. (2017, May). On the effects of bi-/multilingualism. Retrieved from: http://www.meits.org/blog/post/on-the-effects-of-bi-multilingualism
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