Bilingual benefits: Learning a second language boosts brain health

TORONTO, Ontario — Looking to stay sharp well into old age? A new study finds you should probably dust off your old foreign language dictionaries from high school. Scientists say studying a second language can provide a serious cognitive boost for aging minds. Even better, you don’t have to be fluent. The very act of studying a different language is enough to reap the brain benefits.

Study authors from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care discovered that older adults who studied Spanish showed the very same cognitive improvements as another group of older adults participating in a series of brain training activities intended to sharpen those specific cognitive skills. Moreover, the subjects who studied Spanish reported enjoying themselves much more than the others.

“These results are exciting because they indicate that older adults can reap cognitive benefits from an enjoyable activity in which they might want to participate, regardless of these benefits,” says lead study author and neurorehabilitation scientist Dr. Jed Meltzer, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience, in a media release.

You’re never too old to learn a language

Numerous prior studies have concluded that being totally bilingual, or capable of speaking two languages fluently, can help prevent or delay dementia onset. This research, however, is among the first to examine if simply learning another language can offer similar brain benefits.

“The participants in our study showed significant cognitive improvements without becoming nearly fluent in Spanish, which suggests that you don’t have to be bilingual for your brain to benefit from working with another language,” explains Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor at York University and Associate Scientist at the RRI. “This is encouraging since bilingualism is often reached early in life and difficult to achieve in adulthood, while we can choose to learn another language at any age to reap some of the cognitive benefits enjoyed by bilingual individuals.”

A group of 76 older adults (ages 65-75) took part in this study. All participants only spoke one language, were generally cognitively healthy, had never formally studied Spanish in their lives, and had not studied any other language for that matter over the course of the prior decade.

Researchers assigned each person to one of three groups: language training, brain training, or a “waitlist” group which served as a control. For a total of 16 weeks, the participants either spent 30 minutes daily learning Spanish on the language app Duolingo or completing brain tasks on the BrainHQ by Posit Science platform.

How does learning languages boost the brain?

Meanwhile, both before and after that 16 week period all the participants had their cognitive skills tested. The tests administered for this purpose were actually quite similar to the tasks on the BrainHQ by Posit Science platform. Additionally, after 16 weeks had passed, researchers took note of how diligently each person stuck to their prescribed routine, and asked participants how much they enjoyed their assignments.

Participants assigned to both the Spanish and brain task groups showed very similar improvements for two important cognitive categories: working memory and executive function. These two categories revolve around a person’s ability to stay focused, avoid distractions, and deal with conflicting information. The Spanish group had a much better time learning with Duolingo, though, and also stuck with their learning schedules more consistently than the others.

“Besides the cognitive benefits, learning a second language may enrich older adults’ lives in other important ways – for instance, by leading to new friendships or opening the door to a new culture or travel, helping them live life to the fullest,” Dr. Meltzer, who is also an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto, concludes.

The study is published in the journal Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition.