Brain Health,

#212: Multi-Lingual Brains with Dr. Ellen Bialystok

December 29, 2017

Language learning is great for your brain.

This is the conventional wisdom.

But says who, exactly?  How do we know this?  And in what way(s) is it great for your brain?

Dr. Ellen Bialystok is one of the world’s foremost experts on multilingualism and how it affects the brain.  She is a Distinguished Research Professor at York University in Toronto, Canada — where there is no lack of English-and-French speakers available for study — and her research over the past four decade has helped to make what is now “conventional wisdom” conventional.

In some ways, her findings boil down to easy-to-remember rules: More languages, learned earlier, practiced frequently, understood deeply — for maximum benefits.

(Other than a few downsides so minor that most people would consider them trivial, there is nothing “bad” about learning new languages.)

Many unanswered questions remain.

  • What is actually changing in the brain at the down-and-dirty neurological level that results in the behavior-level benefits studies consistently show?
  • Are the studies testing the differences between bilingual people and speakers of three or more languages statistically valid?  Or are the polylingual folks a “self-selected group” with underlying differences in motivation and intelligence versus “mere” bilingual people who can more easily “pick up” a second language simply by being raised in a bicultural household?
  • If you had to pick between gaining deep fluency in a second language and picking up so-so “conversational” skills in a third, which would be better for your brain?

Language Now, Brain Preservation Later?

Perhaps the most eye-catching benefit to multilingualism are the findings that multilingual seniors whose brains show the physical signs of encroaching Alzheimer’s don’t exhibit the symptoms of Alzheimer’s nearly as early as their monolingual peers.  (See this 2013 study.)

The short-term advantages of learning a new language are well known: Expanding the circle of people you can communicate with, better opportunities for travel, new recipes, maybe an otherwise-impossible fling with a foreign girlfriend or boyfriend…

But understanding that there might also be a long-term payoff in neurological resilience is something few of us factor in when considering the long slog through foreign tables of verb conjugation…

It might be worth giving this a second thought.  🙂

Show Notes
  • 00:00:30

    Episode introduction: Multi-Lingual Brains with Dr. Ellen Bialystok.

  • 00:01:31

    This Week In Neuroscience: Exercise and Cognition.

  • 00:03:30

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:03:59

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:05:13

    Guest introduction: Dr. Ellen Bialystok.

  • 00:06:59

    Interview begins.

  • 00:07:25

    Metalinguistic awareness.

  • 00:09:50

    Abilities of bilingual children.

  • 00:11:20

    Do we see these abilities in people who are learning a second language at an older age?

  • 00:13:00

    Are there any downsides to being multilingual?

  • 00:15:00

    Bilingual literacy.

  • 00:17:15

    Are more languages better?

  • 00:20:00

    Speech patterns and selections.

  • 00:23:35

    Development of cognitive processing in bilingual children.

  • 00:26:45

    Dementia and bilingualism.

  • 00:31:00

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:32:28

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: How LSD affects language processing in the brain.

  • 00:34:45

    Episode wrap-up.

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