Speaking Two Languages Improves Brain Function Late in Life

A new study shows that speaking at least two languages improves brain function later in life.





Although there are an estimated 6,000 distinct languages spoken on the planet, only about 1 in 4 countries officially identify themselves as bilingual or multilingual nations.  However, there are more people in the world who speak at least two languages than there are people who speak only one language.  Therefore, the majority of humankind can be thought of as generally being bilingual or multilingual.

Based upon previously published cognitive studies, being bilingual or multilingual appears to “strengthen” the areas of the brain that are involved in both language processing and other higher cognitive functions.  Indeed, based upon these prior studies, lifelong multilingual people appear to experience a later onset of cognitive decline in life, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, compared to monolingual people.  Now, a newly published research study, which appears in the Journal of Neuroscience, provides fascinating new insights into exactly how bilingualism and multilingualism may help to preserve cognitive function in the brain as we age.

In this study, 110 older monolingual and bilingual adults participated in several “task-switching” exercises that test cognitive function.  Using a sophisticated imaging system that measures blood flow within specific areas of the brain (functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI), these monolingual and bilingual study volunteers were put through their paces with various task-switching exercises while their brain function was monitored by fMRI.

Among the monolingual older adults, areas of the brain associated with the processing of information, and with decision-making, were highly activated during task-switching exercises, indicating that these areas of the brain were working very hard to complete the tasks assigned by the researchers.  The bilingual older adults also experienced increased activity in the left lateral frontal cortex and cingulate cortex, but significantly less so than the monolingual study volunteers.  At the same time, the bilingual volunteers consistently outperformed their monolingual fellow volunteers on the task-switching exercises, despite lower levels of activation of these two key areas of the brain.  Thus, just as has been predicted by previous cognitive testing studies, lifelong bilingualism does indeed appear to increase the efficiency of the areas of the brain that are involved in high-level cognitive processing, and also appear to decrease the rate of loss of these cognitive abilities with advancing age, when compared to monolingualism.  In this clinical study, the bilingual older adults were more successful in completing task-switching cognitive exercises than monolingual older adults; and at the same time, the brains of the bilingual adults accomplished this improved cognitive performance with less effort than their monolingual counterparts (based upon fMRI measurements of brain activity).

While there are many potential personal, professional, social and cultural benefits to speaking more than one language, this elegant clinical research study confirms earlier predictions that lifelong bilingualism and multilingualism may help to preserve the cognitive efficiency and function of the higher processing centers of the brain much later in life.  Given at least the perception that the United States lags behind many other countries in the world in the area of foreign language education, the findings of this new study offer yet another reason for schools in the US to ramp up their foreign language programs.  We live in an increasingly competitive, globalized and multilingual world, and preparing our children for a successful future in that world should include early and continuous exposure to foreign language training, in my view.


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Dr. Wascher’s latest video:

Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

At this time, more than 8 percent of Americans are unemployed.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty between September 2001 and December 2011 is now more than 12 percent.  A new website, Veterans in Healthcare, seeks to connect veterans with potential employers.  If you are a veteran who works in the healthcare field, or if you are an employer who is looking for physicians, advanced practice professionals, nurses, corpsmen/medics, or other healthcare professionals, then please take a look at Veterans in Healthcare. As a retired veteran of the U.S. Army, I would also like to personally urge you to hire a veteran whenever possible.

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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity


Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


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