Home for the Summer: a second language to slow mental decline.

Jacob Schor, ND

May 28, 2012




Our dear daughter Sophie is back in Denver after completing her second year at Smith College in Massachusetts.  She has lodged several complaints over the content of our website pointing out that our dog Poppy is mentioned far more often than she is both on the website and in these newsletters.


There have been numerous news stories in the last few months that question the value of going to college, in particular the study of liberal arts as our daughter has undertaken.  Many of you will recall a number of years back that while a student at East High School, our dear daughter Sophie competed as part of the school’s Constitutional Law Team.  That year the East team went to Washington, DC and won the national title in ‘Con Law’ for the third year in a row.  That experience has seemingly swayed our dear daughter to major in government.  She leaves in a few weeks to spend the summer studying in Israel (she is also working toward a minor in Middle Eastern Studies) and from there she goes to Paris for her Junior year abroad.


I mention these travels in light of this question as to whether college is worth the exorbitant cost.  Who knows whether knowing a lot about government will prove to be useful in the long run?  One thing now seems pretty certain though, learning a foreign language may pay long-term dividends in life.  Learning two additional languages, in Sophie’s case, Hebrew and French, will certainly be worth something.


We generally think that the value of speaking a second language is that it can come in handy when traveling in foreign countries.  More an more speaking a second language looks to be handy as we age.  Bilingualism builds cognitive reserve in the brain and the more ‘reserve’ brain capacity we build during life, the later the age at which mental faculties begin to decline.


In the US about 20% of the population is fluent in a second language.  In Europe this figure is closer to 60%.  Researchers report that speaking a second language modifies brain structure and function in a distinct and profound manner.


In times past it was thought that childhood bilingualism had a negative impact on leaning ability and so was discouraged.  This belief was changed fifty years ago, in 1962 when Peal and Lambert reported that children in Montreal who spoke both English and French performed differently on tests: the bilingual children were consistently superior on most tests, especially those requiring symbol manipulation and reorganization.  Later studies showed that bilingual children were better able to solve linguistic problems involving differences between form and meaning demonstrating what is called metalinguistic awareness and also better at non-verbal problems that required ignoring misleading information.


On testing, adult bilinguals score lower in verbal skills than monolinguals; they have smaller vocabularies in either language.  They are slower at picture naming tasks and less accurate.  They are slower at producing words and retrieving the correct word takes more effort.  On the other hand bilinguals demonstrate better executive function than monolinguals.  Executive function is the umbrella term used to describe the cognitive skill that regulates inhibition, attention, and working memory.  Executive control emerges late in development and declines in the elderly with aging.  For children, executive control is linked with academic achievement that in turn is associated with long-term health and well-being.  Developing superior executive control is the ‘Holy Grail’ of education.  A life spent thinking in two languages reorganizes brain neural networks so that the individual can exert greater executive control and sustain better cognitive performance throughout their life.


Engaging in stimulating physical of mental activity acts to expand cognitive reserve and so maintain cognitive functioning and postpone the onset of dementia. Bilingualism contributes to the brain’s cognitive reserve.  Bilingualism protects against age related cognitive decline and may postpone the onset of symptoms of dementia.


Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto is a well-known researcher on the neurological effects of bilingualism.  She has twice published papers on the impact of bilingualism and Alzheimer’s disease, the first in 2007 and the second in 2010. In the earlier study she studied 184 patients diagnosed with dementia, 51% of who were bilingual. The bilingual patients were 4 years older when they started to show symptoms of dementia than monolinguals, all other measures being equivalent.  Both groups declined at the same rate following diagnosis.  The second study analyzed 211 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  Nearly half (102) were bilingual. Similar results were seen, the bilingual patients were 4.3 years older than the monolingual speaking patients when diagnosed.


 It is not too late to learn a second language and have it do some good.  In the May 2012 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers from Dartmouth College reported that the white matter of the brains of adults who were enrolled in an intensive Chinese language course changed progressively in multiple sites across both hemispheres.  It may be that studying new languages later in life may be an effective way to preserve or enhance cognitive function.



If our dear daughter comes through her college years with little else to show for it than being tri-lingual, that would be excellent.  But as her report card arrived the other day, as a proud father let me boast, not only trilingual but with straight A’s this last semester.