Being bilingual makes people's brains more efficient and could combat cognitive ageing, study finds

People who speak two languages are experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring things that will distract from a task 

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith
Tuesday 10 January 2017 11:58 GMT
Being fluent in two languages can benefit the brain
Being fluent in two languages can benefit the brain

Scientists have found that the benefits of being bilingual stretch much further than those commonly associated with being fluent in two languages - it could also help a person’s brain in later life.

New research from the Université de Montréal shows that people who are bilingual are able to save brain power, which in turn could help with the effects of cognitive ageing.

The study, led by Dr Ana Inés Ansaldo at the university’s geriatric research centre, found that bilingualism can make the brain more efficient and economical in the way that it carries out certain tasks.

Published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, the study tested groups of bilingual and monolingual senior citizens on how they performed tasks that involved focusing on visual information while having to ignore spatial information.

The bilinguals in the study showed higher connectivity between visual processing areas located at the back of the brain, she said, which shows that bilingual brains are more efficient and economical as they recruited fewer regions of the brain to complete the task. The regions the brain recruited were specialised areas that are used for detecting the visual characteristics of objects.

“After years of daily practice managing interference between two languages, bilinguals become experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring information that can distract from a task,” Dr Ansaldo said.

While the monolingual and bilingual participants were “equally good” at doing the task, their brains were not acting in the same way. “The bilinguals were much more economical in terms of the brain power,” she told the Montréal Gazette.

Dr Ansaldo said the impact that bilingualism has on brain function may also have a positive impact on cognitive ageing. This is due firstly to the efficient way bilinguals’ brains carry out tasks, and secondly due to bilingual people achieving the same results in a task as monolingual people, but without using the frontal regions of the brain which are vulnerable to ageing.

“We have yet to discover all the benefits of bilingualism," Dr Ansaldo said.

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