Speaking More Than One Language May Help the Brain

Speaking two or more languages associated with slower cognitive decline

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) There's a common expression: "It’s never too late to learn." When it comes to the benefits of learning another language, this expression seems to hold true.

People who knew more than one language, even if they learned the second language as an adult, had better brain function as they aged, researchers found.

"Learn another language."

This study was led by Thomas Bak, MD, of the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Dr. Bak and colleagues questioned whether learning a second language helped the brain as people aged or if people who were smarter were those more likely to learn another language. In this study, the researchers controlled for childhood intelligence.

This study involved a Lothian (region of Scotland) Birth Cohort from 1936, which was comprised of 835 native English-speaking people. In 1947, the participants, who were around 11 years old, were given intelligence tests. The same people were re-tested in the early 1970s, when participants were in their 30s, and questioned about their knowledge of another language.

Of the initial 835 people, 262 reported being able to communicate in another language.

The questionnaire included queries about learning a second language before or after the age of 18. Of the 260 people who could communicate in English and one or more other languages, 195 learned before the age of 18, and 65 learned after age 18.

People who had acquired another language had better cognition (thinking abilities) than expected from how they did on their initial test, and the strongest effect was seen in general intelligence and reading, the researchers found.

The results were similar whether the person learned the language before the age of 18 or later.

The researchers also asked how much the bilingual individuals used another language, and 170 people said they only spoke English on a regular basis. These regular English speakers did not score differently than others who used another language more.

Generally speaking, those with higher IQs (who did best on the intelligence tests at a young age) and learned another language earlier seemed to benefit the most, the researchers reported. Those who had a lower IQ when tested at age 11 were those who seemed to do best from learning another language after age 18. However, anyone who learned another language, even in adulthood, benefited as shown by doing better on intelligence tests later.

The investigators also learned that knowing three or more languages produced stronger effects (higher intelligence scores at the second testing) than knowing only one.

The authors concluded that learning a second language may have lasting beneficial effects on the brain.

They acknowledged that the participants were asked about their knowledge of another language, and not tested on proficiency (how well they could actually understand and communicate in that language).

Peter Strong, PhD, a professional psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, explained to dailyRx News, "When we learn a language, we are forming neural connections between nerve cells associated with symbolic constructs (words, thoughts and images) and sensory experience. It is generally recognized that increasing connectivity between these different parts of the brain enhances mental functioning. Learning a second language could significantly increase this connectivity even further, which might explain the observed beneficial effects.”

In an editorial accompanying this study, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, wrote, "The epidemiological study by Dr. Bak and colleagues provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the aging brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”

This study appeared in the Annals of Neurology on June 2.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 1, 2014
Last Updated:
June 2, 2014