FYI Daily

Bilingualism Might Protect Brain Against Dementia

Last updated:

April 06, 2012

Remember all those boring French or Spanish lessons in grade school? It turns out they might have been useful after all.

According to new research, speaking multiple languages as a child may protect the brain against dementia as an older adult.

A recent study showed that bilingual children tend to be better at "executive processing" -- accessing working memory, multitasking, and organizing their thoughts -- than children who speak only one language. It sort of makes sense, right? If a kid is switching back and forth between the grammar rules of English and Mandarin, she's probably building a more nimble mind than someone who only has to deal with one set of rules.

Whether that mental nimbleness would help adults was another question. Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and co-author on the bilingual-children study, tested that too.

In a second recent study, Bialystok found that knowing multiple languages protected against cognitive decline by building up a "cognitive reserve," or extra mental power that allows people to function normally even if a few of their brain cells aren't.

That's good news for people who are bilingual -- but what about those of us whose knowledge of another language is limited to buying another round of drinks, asking where the bathroom is, and maybe counting to fünf?

"The kind of story we're telling about bilingualism and dementia is not that bilingualism is the only inoculation against dementia, but rather, bilingualism is one of the many things we know that contributes to cognitive reserve," Bialystok told NPR. "It's why you're supposed to do crossword puzzles and exercise and learn a musical instrument. If you're not bilingual but you're active and engaged, you're getting cognitive reserve."

And then there's always helping your kids or grandkids with their language homework. If nothing else, you might learn to count to zehn.