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Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at York University in Toronto, has spent nearly 40 years studying bilingualism and its effects. Bialystok presented her findings at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Annual Meeting in D.C. and, more recently, spoke with NY Times journalist, Claudia Dreifus, on the benefits of being bilingual. Bialystok’s research in cognitive neuroscience has shown that speakers who are fluent in two or more languages have the cognitive advantages of prioritizing information, multi-tasking, and coping with Alzheimer’s disease symptoms better than, ceteris parabus, those who speak only one language.
Bialystok refers to the part of the brain that focuses on relevant information while ignoring distractions as “the executive control system.” This control system is what allows us to hold a plurality of things in our mind and switch among them.
“If you have two languages and you use them regularly,” says Bialystok, “the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment.” By virtue of the executive control system’s function and the nature of alternating between two languages, she infers that bilinguals use the brain’s executive system more than monolinguals. “[I]t’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”
In 2004, Bialystok, along with Fergus Craik, conducted three studies concerning the cognitive effects in monolingual and bilingual people between the ages of 30 and 80 years. Using computerized tests, they discovered that bilingual subjects, in all age groups, could better disregard superfluous information than their monolingual counterparts.
These results, which were most prominent in the older age group, led Bialystok to research what, if any, bilingual benefits arise for older people who are diagnosed with dementia. She and her team examined the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. The data suggests that bilingual patients exhibited Alzheimer’s symptoms—on average, six or seven years—later than single-language patients. The conclusion is not that the bilingual subjects delayed Alzheimer’s, but rather that, despite the presence of the disease, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level than monolingual Alzheimer patients at the same age and stage of disease.
In addition to forestalling the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Bialystok holds that bilingualism helps with multitasking, which is an activity the executive control system handles. Bialystok and her team put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator in which they had to drive while performing extra tasks. While everyone’s driving worsened with the adding of another task, the bilingual’s driving performance dropped the least.
One might ask whether or not a semester of German in college or a year of high school Spanish provides a speaker with any of the cognitive advantages noted above. Bialystok’s reply is an unsurprising “no.” Occasional or one-time use of a second language is insufficient in producing the aforementioned bilingual benefits. A speaker must exercise his or her bilingual ability frequently to reap its positive effects.
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