Being bilingual improves cognitive skills and delays the onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status, says a recently published study by the American Academy of Neurology.
Bilingualism might have been the norm for early human communities, explaining the brain’s capacity to support it, the study authors wrote.
People fluent in more than one language show better general cognitive performance, said Dr Thomas Bak of the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and one of the report’s authors.
“The action of shifting between languages according to the changing context acts as mental exercise,” Dr Bak said, adding that the advantages of bilingualism include higher attention than that of monolinguals.
Those who speak more than one language are “aware and selective”, they “filter between language structures according to changing social norms” as they use different languages, he said.
Whether they were born in a mixed marriage where parents spoke different languages, or they acquired a new language on immigration, bilingual children outperform their monolingual peers at schools, Dr Bak said.
The effect of such mental exercise depends on several factors, with the study showing that the age at which the language was acquired influences the effect of bilingualism on cognition. Individuals who spoke a second language at an early age showed better cognitive performance.
This can be attributed to the fact that those individuals “spent more time being bilingual” said Dr Ellen Bialystock, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University. She added, however, that “there are still advantages to be found from late bilingualism.”
Another factor that research is currently looking into is the “linguistic distance” between the two languages an individual speaks. Dr Bak, who is currently conducting research on this factor, hopes that more research comes out of the Arab world.
“Arabic is far more different to English that any other language,” he said, “It is a very fascinating area and will bring a lot to the field.”