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Laurier professor studies how language lights up our brains

Learning a second language sparks new connections in the brain that are stored as cognitive reserve.

BY SHAUNA MCGINN | JUN 24 2022

Being multilingual is more than a skill, it’s the foundation of the human experience. That’s one of the messages renowned linguistics expert John Schwieter is trying to spread through his research.

“People don’t see bilingualism as an exercise that the brain is powerfully taking control of as a benefit – but that’s one of the biggest reasons why I believe bilingualism matters,” Dr. Schwieter said. It’s also the namesake of the centre at Wilfrid Laurier University – Bilingualism Matters – that Dr. Schwieter helps run, the only Canadian branch of an international organization that studies language. One of the goals is to dispel misconceptions. For example: sending a child to a bilingual program will harm their development. Dr. Schwieter argues that apart from potential self-consciousness in the early stages of learning a language, there’s really no downside for your brain.

Dr. Schwieter was recently interviewed by Sanjay Gupta for his podcast Chasing Life, discussing how bilingualism boosts brain health – research has shown it may delay the onset of dementia for up to five years. Learning a second language sparks new connections in the brain that are stored as cognitive reserve, a bank that can be drawn from when mental decline takes place; this remains even when bilinguals become proficient. “There are these cognitive control mechanisms at the core of the bilingual mind, this turning on and off, and having to suppress and activate languages,” Dr. Schwieter explained.

The benefits of multilingualism have long been known, though an increasingly globalized world, coupled with an aging population, have brought heightened interest in the search for more evidence. At Debra Titone’s multilingualism lab at McGill University, researchers investigate factors that dovetail with the cognitive benefits, like an expanded social network. “We ask [bilinguals], ‘Who are the 12 people you interact with most of the time, and what languages do you use?’” Dr. Titone said. “We’re working hard to think not only about the interpersonal level of how people use languages, but finding ways to quantify those societal factors.”

Dr. Schwieter said some of his research is also deepening this understanding, by looking closer at cognitive control. He referenced a recent study with colleagues in China which featured students who spoke only Mandarin. After being taught words in both Japanese and German, the students were asked to recall them when shown different pictures, all while having their brain activity tracked. “The fact that they had switched between these two new languages – even as monolinguals – showed a significant increase in their general cognitive control abilities,” Dr. Schwieter said.

Importantly, Dr. Schwieter says other research shows the same control does not happen when monolinguals do a similar exercise in their native language; seeing a photo of a couch and being able to also call it a “sofa”, for example, doesn’t have the same impact. In other words, while mastering one language may be good for you, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch for your brain as knowing two.

Dr. Schwieter, Dr. Titone, and other language experts across the country are applying for a joint research grant to study multilingualism from various disciplines. “Language pervades everything… it’s the way humans express their cognition and their social impulses,” says Dr. Titone. “It’s very difficult to stay in one theoretical or disciplinary silo when one studies bilingualism,” said Dr. Titone. “You’re never going to get a complete picture that way.”

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