On the tip of the tongue

“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system,” said York University psychology professor Ellen Bialystok at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science being held in Washington, DC.

“We know that this system deteriorates with age, but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.”

In her research, published recently in the journal Neurology, Bialystok looked at 211 people with probable Alzheimer’s disease, 102 of whom were bilingual and 109 monolingual, and noted the age at which the patients’ cognitive impairment had started.

Her results showed that bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4,3 years later, on average, and had reported the onset of symptoms 5,1 years later than monolingual patients.

She said switching between different languages seemed to stimulate the brain so that it built up a cognitive reserve. “It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”

The effect was greatest for people who had to use the languages every day and choose between two sets of words all the time. Nevertheless, learning a language at school and continuing to practise it was also useful, she said. “It works best for people who speak two languages every day, like immigrants moving to a new country who speak their own language at home. But every bit helps.”

Bialystock said her team was now researching whether using two or more languages resulted in any physical changes to the brain, in addition to improving cognition. Early results suggest that it may change brain size.

Bilingualism keeps the brain in shape
Another study of bilingual people carried out by Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, supported the idea that speaking more than one language keeps the brain in shape and bolsters mental function.

She found that bilingual speakers could outperform single-language speakers in mental tasks such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important details. Bilinguals were also better at prioritising and multitasking.

“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multitasking,” said Kroll. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective-taking.” Her findings conflict with the idea that speaking several languages confuses the brain and might even hinder cognitive development.

“The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children. The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”

When speaking to one another, bilingual people can quickly switch between two languages, usually choosing the word or phrase from the language that best expresses their thoughts. But bilinguals rarely slip into a second language when speaking to monolinguals.

“The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals. In other words, there are alternatives available in both languages,” said Kroll.

“Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice. The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages.

“The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages.” —

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Alok Jha
Alok Jha works from London, England. Science correspondent at @TheEconomist Former @WellcomeTrust fellow Author: The Water Book https://t.co/lySv8Xl9zt [email protected] Alok Jha has over 31762 followers on Twitter.

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

Openview, now powered by two million homes

The future of free-to-air satellite TV is celebrating having two million viewers by giving away two homes worth R2-million

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday