Are you maintaining an active lifestyle in order to keep your body in shape? Maybe you go to the gym every week and try to avoid fast food. But what about our brain? Is it possible to take good care of and alter the way our brain develops as we get older, or is it already determined by our genes?
It has been known for some time that older adults who stay active by maintaining a social and active life delay the onset of dementia. However, research shows that being fluent in two languages – being bilingual – also has a positive effect on the brain. Bilinguals diagnosed with dementia reported the onset of their symptoms up to 5 years later than monolinguals.
But what does being bilingual actually mean? Being bilingual does not merely mean you can order beer in more than one language (then I would be quadrilingual). It means that you are able to speak two languages with the facility of a native speaker.
Bilinguals have two languages active in their brain at the same time, which require them to be skilled at activating the right language for the occasion, while suppressing the other language. For an English-Spanish bilingual who wants to say ‘thank you’, both ‘thank you’ and ‘gracias’ will pop up. In order to choose the appropriate alternative, the right language has to be activated while the other has to be suppressed. This cognitive flexibility, activating and suppressing, is something bilinguals are very good at.
When I’m abroad and speaking a language I haven’t spoken in a while, it happens that a word from my mother tongue suddenly slips into a sentence. “Dos cervezas, tack!”, I often surprise myself when this happens. This is an example of when I can’t suppress my mother tongue well enough, and instead both ‘gracias’ and ‘tack’ (please in Swedish) are activated.
In order to investigate how bilinguals and monolinguals differ from each other on tasks that don’t involve language, researchers compared bilingual and monolingual children on a card sorting task. They let the children sort a set of cards with symbols. First, they asked the children to sort the cards by one feature (color), then, they asked them to re-sort the same cards by another feature (shape). Interestingly, they found that bilingual children showed more cognitive flexibility, by being better in attending to the new rule (sorting by shape) and ignore the old rule (sorting by color). This finding has been replicated in several experiments, using different tasks. So, even on tasks that don’t involve language, bilinguals seem to have an advantage by showing greater cognitive flexibility.
Furthermore, when taking a look at the actual brain, researchers have discovered that bilinguals have increased density of brain cells in one of the brain’s language-areas.
If you are now thinking that it’s too late for you to learn a second language, I have some good news for you. Earlier this year, a Swedish-German research group found structural changes in the brain’s language areas in adults learning a second language, only after 3 months of training.
On the whole, speaking two languages does alter the brain, and affects cognitive capacities beyond language. Bilingualism seems to delay the onset of dementia, and bilinguals have increased density of brain cells in one of the brain’s language-areas. Mono- and bilinguals perform differently on tasks demanding cognitive flexibility, and only after 3 months of training structural changes in the brain occur in adults learning a new language.
All this tells us that it is not only our genes and age that determine the future of our brain, but also what we do with it. Our brain is a plastic organ. If you want to take good care of it, treat it like a thinking-muscle – a muscle that gets stronger when using it. Stay active and don’t be afraid of trying and learning new things. Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself and take that language course you have always wanted?
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Illustration: Erica Lindstedt