Survey finds health benefits to bilingualism

New evidence has emerged that skills such as multitasking and prioritizing information, as well as the ability to ward off effects of dementia, can be improved through bilingualism.

Brenda Gorman, an assistant professor of speech pathology and audiology, said research regarding the benefits of bilingualism is a relatively new area, but one which shows validity.

“Only in the last five years have the benefits of bilingualism come out,” Gorman said. “There are linguistic, cognitive and literacy advantages that the studies surfacing now are pointing out.”

Evidence presented by Janet Werker, director of infant studies at the University of British Columbia, at the annual February meeting for American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., said being exposed to multiple languages changes a person’s behavior as early as at birth.

Gorman finds her two-year-old, bilingual son capable of doing difficult tasks such as translating on the spot from English to Spanish. Gorman continued to say being bilingual is a huge benefit for children.

“The bilingual experience, navigating two languages, provides meaningful and natural opportunities for increased mental exercise,” Gorman said.

At the AAAS meeting, researcher Ellen Bialystok of York University stated bilingual children who use their second language on a normal basis are better at prioritizing tasks and multitasking than monolingual students.

Martin Scanlan, an assistant professor in bilingual education, said the earlier people start learning a second language, the stronger the progression is in multitasking and the ability to become a fluent speaker.

“There are cognitive correlations and benefits of being bilingual,” Scanlan said. “I saw a third grader speak at a school board meeting the other night and he gave his testimony in English and when the board asked if he could repeat the statement in Spanish, he did so with ease and with a native accent.”

Scanlan also said the earlier a person learns a second language or fosters the fact of being in a bilingual home or school, the easier it will be to grasp difficult tasks since the person has already learned the difficult task of balancing two languages.

Bialystok presented her findings on delaying the effects of dementia at the AAAS meeting. Her study found that speaking more than one language protects against cognitive decline of key brain functions.

“Those who spoke more than one language were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 4.3 years later and reported the onset symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients,” Bialystok said in the report.

Bialystok and her colleagues examined 211 Alzheimer’s patients, all with the same level of mental ingenuity. Of the patients, 102 had a long history of bilingualism and 109 had not. The results in the findings were those who were bilingual patients were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s approximately four years later than monolingual patients.

Gorman explained the results could be due to extra mental exercise that monolinguals do not have.

“This is similar to when board and word games stimulate activity in a monolinguals mind,” Gorman said. “Bilinguals are using both languages at the same time.

“They can speak language ‘A’ and process in language ‘B,’ increasing their mental activity,” he added. “If we are not challenging our brains, it’s easier to see and have onset dementia.”