Effect of Bilingualism on Ageing and the Brain

05 Apr 2018

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  • Nur’Aisyah Binte Yussof

In Wiley’s journal article, he states that speaking two languages benefits the aging brain. He presents his ideas, arguments and analysis with supporting evidence from epidemiological study by Dr. Bak and colleagues from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. This critical review will examine another three different articles on this issue and would evaluate its contents based on the assumption from Wiley’s article. Although Wiley had proven his point, his article might be biased and contains some misinterpretation of data coming from only one source of research to prove his point that bilingualism benefits the aging brain. Thus, the other research studies to support his ideology.

In the first paragraph of Wiley’s journal article, he stated that “bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults.” This conclusion is based on the data from the study of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 undertaken by The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative (MR/K026992/1). The results from this study indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. Wiley, as supported by the research study determines that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition and may slow down cognitive decline from aging. The research done proved that acquiring a second language, even as an adult may benefit the aging brain.

Bilingualism allows the brain to respond more rapidly to the conditions that placed greater demands on the working memory. Stagnant use of the brain; monolinguals, would result in the brain to slow down and be more prone to effects of aging. Cognitive abilities are better when the language sphere is used more often thus, increasing the rate of brain functions. Distinguished Professor of Psychology from Penn State; Judith Kroll stated that “Bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals (people who speak only one language) in certain mental abilities, such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important information.” Bilingual speakers may benefit and perform better in tasks such as multi-tasking and also have an advantage in attention and cognitive control which will have long-term benefits. Increasing use of these systems slows down aging and also deters sickness such as dementia and also Alzheimer’s.

These three articles from Ellen Bialystok, American Academy of Neurology and Universtat Jaume I, acknowledged the fact that bilingualism benefits the aging brain.

In the book from Ellen Bialystok; Bilingualism in development: language, literacy and cognition, she explained that bilingualism involves language proficiency which consisted of two cognitive processes, analysis of representational structure and control of attention. These cognitive processes would determine proficiency through the degree of involvement and mental representations that refers to the process of explicit structure and organization of information represented with knowledge. “Language proficiency is the ability to function in a situation that is defined by specific cognitive and linguistic demands, to a level of performance indicated by either objective criteria or normative standards.”

The journal article by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) states that: “Speaking more than one language is thought to lead better development of areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect from the onset of dementia”.

In addition, the journal article from Universitat Jaume I states that, bilinguals use the left inferior frontal lobe, the Broca's area, to respond to stimuli where executive functions are performed (such as ordering forms by colour or shape), whereas monolinguals use the right part to respond to the same stimuli."Findings are very important because they show an unknown aspect of bilingualism, which goes beyond linguistic advantages, and they also show bilinguals are more effective in responding to certain stimuli," explains researcher Cesar Avila, who ensures the research shows that bilingualism does not only have effects on the brain at a linguistic level, but that it also works differently, emphasizing the importance of introducing languages at an early age because it generates cognitive benefits.

All of these sources, with supporting evidence links back to the main article that we studied, whereby it is strongly believed that bilingualism would benefit the aging brain. These articles contain similar arguments about how language and use of cognitive process are inter-related. With the brain performing cognitive processes while a bilingual person speaks, it would increase brain activities which in turn would benefit aging brain to not be vulnerable to sickness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease due to frequent activities in the brain. In an American Academy of Neurology study, stagnant use of brain, such as monolinguals, would increase the risk of one developing a sickness four and a half years before bilinguals.

Although believed that bilingualism will benefit the aging brain, cognitive functions due bilingualism, that slow down due to aging can be fine tuned and maintained in other ways as well. It is measured by the efficiency level of our brain as we age. For example, being physically active produces positive effects on many cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, information processing and problem solving. Cognitive abilities in an aging brain could still be active as it was in the youth through spatial attention which is critical in many aspects of our daily lives. According to the research from Dr Joanna Brooks, certain types of cognitive systems in the right cerebral hemisphere, are encapsulated and may be protected from aging. Thus, bilingualism would not be the only factor that would benefit the aging brain.

This critical review examines the findings of Wiley and a few other research studies to determine if bilingualism would benefit the aging brain. Being supported by most studies, Wiley’s statement is credible. However, bilingualism, being the only factor would not be strong enough to benefit the aging brain. Cognitive abilities, such as the biologically organized mental structure in the brain known as the Language Acquisition Device facilitates the learning of a language and allows the rapid cognitive activity which will also benefit the aging brain. Wiley’s article misleads readers and focuses attention only on bilingualism while ignoring other factors that will also affect or benefit the aging brain.

1029 words.


Association for Psychological Science. (2010, November 9). Bilingual benefits reach beyond communication. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101109113028.htm

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition. United Kingdom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Concordia University. (2013, January 16). Language mixing in children growing up bilingual. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130116123641.htm

Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. (2014, July 1). The less older adults sleep, the faster their brains age, new study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 11, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140701091458.htm

Ithaca College. (2013, July 15). Bilingual children have a two-tracked mind. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130715151106.htm

Northwestern University. (2014, September 2). Community music programs enhance brain function in at-risk children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140902205335.htm

Penn State. (2011, February 21). Juggling languages can build better brains. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110218092529.htm

Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland). (2014, February 5). Links explored between physical activity, learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140205091550.htm

Umeå universitet. (2012, April 27). Maintain your brain: The secrets to aging success. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 11, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120427163335.htm

Universitat Jaume I. (2010, July 7). Bilingualism associated with brain reorganization involving better efficiency in executive functions, research finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100707065139.htm

Wiley. (2014, June 2). Speaking two languages benefits the aging brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140602101204.htm

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