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Brain-boosting bilingualism

York professor lauds the cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language.

BY MARK CARDWELL | DEC 05 2012

Ellen Bialystok knows all about the many brain-boosting benefits of bilingualism. “When you speak more than one language you are always using your brain. It’s like constantly doing crossword puzzles,” says Dr. Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University and a leading expert on the effects of bilingualism on both cognitive development in children and mental health of the elderly.

That’s why she sees nothing but positives in the latest numbers on language use in Canada gleaned from the 2011 census, released in late October. Notably, 18 percent of Canadians reported speaking at least two languages at home; a similar percentage of Canadians said they could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages.

“Research by me and others has clearly shown that bilingual kids do better in everything to do with cognitive processes,” says Dr. Bialystok, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and winner of a Killam Prize in 2010. The data suggests “bilingualism protects people against Alzheimer’s and helps offset the disease four or five years longer than for monolingual people.”

Dr. Bialystok began doing groundbreaking research on the consequences and effects of bilingualism on children’s development in the late 1970s and ’80s. “The popular belief back then was that learning a second language made you retarded, which was the word people used,” she recalls.

But the results of her research and the methodologies she developed to study literary acquisition and metalinguistic awareness (the ability to express languages verbally and non-verbally) showed differently. “Bilingualism,” she says, “helps kids master specific cognitive processes faster, period.”

Her recent research, which focuses on adults and cognitive aging, suggests those brainy benefits last a lifetime. “Bilingualism has so many positives,” says Dr. Bialystok. “I think it’s fabulous that we have created a culture that encourages people to maintain their linguistic identity.”

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  1. Linda Caron / December 5, 2012 at 12:15

    Very interesting findings indeed. Are there numbers showing whether Alzheimer’s is less prevalent in European countries where people fluently speak 2 or 3 languages than in North America, where people tend to speak fewer languages?

  2. Sadaf S. / December 6, 2012 at 00:33

    Really interesting. I wonder if being bilingual in languages that are very different from each other (such as English and Mandarin) would have a different effect on cognitive capacities than being bilingual in languages that are more similar to each other (such as French and Spanish). In any case, it is validating to have psychological research supporting the notion that the ability to communicate (and interact) in different ways in different contexts is a desirable skill and has benefits to self and society.