The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual
What I’m going to tell you today is about some cognitive benefits of being bilingual that are expected to work as preventive measures against senile dementia. First, I’m going to tell you a bit about senile dementia and then the cognitive benefits of being bilingual.
Senile dementia is medical conditions where elderly people lose their cognitive functions because of aging. Cognitive functions are capabilities of reasoning, memorizing, paying attention, using language, etc. Unfortunately, Japan has seen the number of the elderly suffering from senile dementia steadily increasing as Japan’s population has been rapidly aging. Regarding this issue, here’s very alarming statistics. Around four percent of the people from 70 to 74 are reported to be suffering from senile dementia. Moreover, the number of those people is supposed to double at every interval in five years as people get older. Ultimately, around 30 % of the elderly people aged 85 or above live in difficulty because of senile dementia. Does anyone here want to join that group when you get older? No one does, I bet. Besides, no one could escape from getting older.
So, what we need to do to reduce the risk of suffering from senile dementia or in other words, to keep cognitive functions in good condition. One of the ways is to avoid an inactive lifestyle. You should make it a rule to do some physical exercise on a regular basis. In addition, it’s worth trying to make use of the cognitive benefits of being bilingual. Now, I’m going to tell you how the cognitive benefits of being bilingual can be helpful for keeping senile dementia off. Learning other languages can be a kind of brain exercise to keep cognitive functions in good condition. By doing so, you can reduce the risk of suffering from senile dementia.
With regard to this, here’s the article titled, “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” by Viorica Marian, Ph.D., and Anthony Shook. (Dr. Viorica Marian is chair of the department of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University and associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, psychology, and cognitive science. Anthony Shook is a doctoral candidate in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University.) According to them, for the past few decades, advanced technology has enabled researchers to investigate how bilingualism can change a cognitive and neurological system and what happens in our brains. One of the things happening in our brains is “language-co-activation,” which has been shown by many studies. When you hear a certain word, for example “can,” other words that begin with similar sounds, such as “candy” or “candle” come up to you because you need to recognize what a given word might be. This activation occurs in two languages when bilingual people hear a certain word.
“Language-co-activation” occurs so automatically that bilingual people are always forced to juggle two languages. This can give some drawbacks to bilingual people, such as slower response time to name pictures. On the other hand, this can also give them some advantages. Switching two languages and keeping them in well- balanced relation require them to activate executive functions, a regulatory system of general cognitive abilities. Because of this, bilingual people have more chances to practice using executive functions than monolingual people do. Thus, bilingual experience can strengthen those abilities. Furthermore, brain’s structure can be altered. The article says, “It appears that bilingual experience not only changes the way neurological structures process information, but also may alter the neurological structures themselves.”
The article includes some good news especially for elderly people like me. Bilingualism can bring the cognitive and neurological benefits into older adulthood by maintaining what is called “cognitive reserve.” “Cognitive reserve” refers to the efficient use of brain networks to improve brain functions and to use neural networks alternatively to make up for damaged areas during aging. Based on these findings, it can be said that bilingual experience enables you to keep cognitive functions in good condition, resulting in reducing the risk of suffering from senile dementia. Moreover, bilingualism can delay when age-related disease develops, such as Alzheimer’s. A study of more than 200 bilingual and monolingual patients with Alzheimer’s disease reports that as to when they developed the initial symptoms of the disease, an average age of the monolingual patients was 5 years earlier than that of their bilingual counterparts; 72.6 vs. 77.7. In its conclusion, the article states, “The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.”
The article asserts late comers in learning a second language can also enjoy the cognitive benefits of being bilingual. How wonderful it sounds, doesn’t it? In addition, as someone who has been learning English for the past two decades, I would say that one of the keys to succeed in enjoying the cognitive benefits by studying any second language is persistent practice. As they say, “practice makes perfect.” Being bilingual or in the process of second language acquisition can help you keep your cognitive functions in good condition; as a result, that can help you keep senile dementia off. However, it’s totally up to you whether you choose a path that enables you to enjoy the cognitive benefits of being bilingual.