Aging & Bilingualism

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By Mary Clements

John, who runs Les Petites Pommes with me and who is also one of my greatest and most long time friends is ALWAYS reading. From adventure, classics, horror, poetry and graphic novels to science, history, philosophy and business, he constantly has a book (or 2 or 3) on the go for his book club and personal interests.

So this week when he shared with me a message on our slack channel that said, “check out this article for our newsletter”, I did so immediately because I wondered what he had gotten into now.

I clicked on it and it was a research paper recently published in frontiers in Psychology entitled “Add Bilingualism to the Mix: L2 Proficiency Modulates the Effect of Cognitive Reserve Proxies on Executive Performance in Healthy Aging”.

You can click on the link above to read for yourself but in summary, the article talks about how researchers from HSE University (Russia) and Northumbria University (UK) have found that bilingualism can slow down and mitigate the course of age-related changes in the human brain.

We know the human brain begins to perform worse with age with a decrease in information processing, to short-term and episodic deteriorations in memory as well as a decrease in language and executive functioning skills. This is called “cognitive aging”.

The speed at which cognitive aging occurs varies and depends on a person’s “cognitive reserve” and the brains ability to cope with the effects of age-related brain damage. This reserve is built up over the course of a person’s life. The more complex the neural networks are, the greater a person’s cognitive reserve is and the milder any age-related changes will be. 

While John and Sihem are our resident Science teachers here at Les Petites Pommes, I did want to highlight this exciting passage of the article:

Our approach revealed a beneficial effect of increasing L2 proficiency and amount of time passed since acquiring L2 on executive functioning in a sample of bilingual older adults. This result is in line with several previous investigations showing that bilingualism supports the maintenance of optimal executive performance during senescence (e.g., Bialystok et al., 2004Gold et al., 2013bEstanga et al., 2017Del Maschio et al., 2018Incera and McLennan, 2018). The rationale behind this effect would lie in the extra burden placed on bilinguals’ executive control by the constant necessity to manage crosslinguistic interplay: mechanisms as response selection, interference inhibition, information updating and task-switching have been shown to be constantly active in the bilingual mind and brain during language processing (Abutalebi and Green, 2007Green and Abutalebi, 2013). This training is thought to lead to ameliorations in bilinguals’ executive network capacity, efficiency and flexibility (for a review see Kroll et al., 2015), namely the action mechanism of CR (Stern, 2009).

So parents reading this today, lets celebrate the efforts you’re putting into your children’s French learning! No matter what the route your child is on (French Immersion, core, extracurricular classes, learning at home) it’s giving them not only the regular benefits of a second language (increased job opportunities, travel, enriching experiences and more! ) but also giving them the benefit of starting now to build up their cognitive reserves which they will take with them into old age! I shall thank my own parents this weekend for insisting I continued to learn French even when it was very hard for me (and them!) at first! 🙂