According to a newly published study in Annals of Neurology, done at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, learning a second language, no matter what age, can affect the brain positively. The researchers discovered that intelligence levels, reading skills and verbal fluency were all improved. The study was conducted using 853 subjects, using data from when they were 11-years-old and later when they were in their 70s. Previously, a study was done that found bilingual individuals had delays of several years in the onset of dementia.
This new study sought out an answer to whether learning a second language caused improvements in cognitive functioning or if people who possess superior cognitive abilities were more liable to learning a second language. At the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology, Dr. Thomas Bak believes he has puzzled out this conundrum.
Dr. Bak said that worldwide millions of individuals who choose to learn a second language are in the later stages of life. He points out that his study has shown that when bilingualism is attained in adulthood, there may be benefits to an aging brain. Of the original 1,091 subjects, 866 participated in the second wave of the study and 853 completed it. Dr. Bak used intelligence test data from the subjects, all English-speaking and born in and around Edinburgh, when they were 11 years old. He examined how the subjects’ cognitive abilities had altered when tests were conducted once more in their 70s. All of the final research was done from 2008 to 2010.
Each subject claimed the ability to speak at the very least one language besides English. One hundred ninety-five of the participants had learned their second language before they were 18 years old. The remaining subjects did so later in their lives.
Compared to what was expected from the baseline intelligence tests, there were indications that the subjects who were conversant in two or more languages possessed considerably superior cognitive abilities. The participants’ reading skills and general intelligence were most greatly affected. These effects were found to not only be present in the subjects who had learned a second language early, but those who had acquired bilingualism in their later years.
Dr. Bak believes that the pattern discovered is a meaningful one, since the improvements in focus, fluency and attention were not able to be explained simply by the original intelligence measurement. He goes on to say that their findings are of substantial practical relevance. Dr. Bak did admit, however, that many questions were raised by the study. Is being an active speaker of a second language superior in its’ affects to cognition than simply knowing the language? Are these same positive effects possible for cognitive aging?
A professor of medicine at Boston’s Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, said of the study, that it provides the vital first step toward understanding the positive impacts of learned second languages on the aging brain. The research blazes a trail for any causal studies in the future on bilingualism and the prevention of cognitive decline.
By Stacy Lamy