Speaking Multiple Languages May Help Delay Dementia Symptoms

NANCY SHUTE

The brains of people who grow up speaking two languages are wired differently, and those differences protect them from dementia as they age.

That's the news from two studies out this month from a scientist in Canada who has spent decades trying to figure out whether being bilingual is bad or good. "I've been doing this for 25 years," Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, tells Shots. "Suddenly people are interested. I figure it's because everybody's scared about dementia."

Since about 20 percent of Americans are bilingual and as many as 60 percent of people in big cities like Los Angeles grew up speaking two languages, this is no small issue.

Not so long ago, it was thought that being bilingual was a disadvantage, because bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in both languages and are slower in word recall. But more recent research finds that bilingual children are better at "executive processing," which includes being able to pay attention, plan and organize thoughts.

That's the focus of one of the studies, which concludes that kids who grow up speaking two languages are better at switching between tasks than kids who spoke only one language. Researchers gave 104 children a common executive function test on a computer that asked them to sort images of either colors or animals on a computer screen. This "switching" task tests working memory and the ability to change from one rule to another.

The children who were bilingual in French, Chinese or Spanish were better at switching categories – in essence, multitasking. That may well be because they learn early on to toggle between the two sets of rules for English and their other language. Bialystok is one of the authors of this study published in the journal Child Development.

So does it do you any good when you're grown up? That's been a big question in research on the bilingual brain. The second recent study adds to growing evidence that being bilingual as a child helps a lot later in life.

It reviews the state of research on bilingual adults, and finds they maintain better executive functioning later in life than monolingual people. That extra "cognitive reserve" may allow the brain to better cope with the damage caused by dementia, thereby delaying symptoms. (Being physically and mentally active has also been shown to have cognitive benefits.) The article, also co-authored by Bialystock, is in the current issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

But what about those of us who aren't bilingual? Are we doomed?

"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 says. "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."

Still, bilinguals do have a natural advantage, she notes, because they can stay active and engaged without making a huge effort.

"Nobody spends all day every day doing crossword puzzles, but everybody spends all day every day talking," Bialystok says. "It's a way to get massive doses of this stimulating activity without doing anything special."

Source: NPR online.https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/04/04/149995850/speaking-multiple-languages-may-help-delay-dementia-symptoms


Speaking More Than One Language Could Prevent Alzheimer's

NANCY SHUTE

Scientists have found that bilingual seniors are better at skills that can fade with age than their monolingual peers.

Not so long ago bilingualism was thought to be bad for your brain. But it looks more and more like speaking more than one language could help save you from Alzheimer's disease.

The latest evidence from the bilingualism-is-good-for-you crew comes from Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington. To test the idea, he had older people who grew up bilingual do an attention-switching task, a skill that typically fades with age. Earlier research has found that people bilingual since childhood are better at the high-order thinking called executive function as they age.

Gold found that his bilingual seniors were better at the task, which had them quickly sorting colors and shapes, than their monolingual peers. He then added an extra dimension by sticking the people's heads in scanners to see what was happening inside their brains. The brains of the monolingual seniors were working harder to complete the task, while the bilingual seniors' brains were much more efficient, more like those of young adults.

Neuroscientists think that having more reserve brain power helps compensate for age-related declines in thinking and memory, and may help protect against the losses caused by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

About 20 percent of Americans are bilingual and as many as 60 percent of people in cities like New York grew up speaking two languages

Gold might not be an entirely unbiased observer: He became a fluent bilingual as a child, thanks to the French immersion school he attended in Montreal. He's old enough to remember when speaking two languages was considered a handicap. He recalls a cousin ragging him: "He said, 'You're not going to learn to speak English properly'. Not only is that not true, but bilingualism gives you benefits in what we call executive control."

Gold seldom speaks French now, though he has learned Spanish to talk with his Mexican-born wife and her relatives. His next task is to see if learning a second language in adulthood would give some protective benefit to those of us who missed the chance to be bilingual as children. That, he says, "would be more useful to people."

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/01/10/169066535/speaking-more-than-one-language-could-prevent-alzheimers


How Language Seems To Shape One's View Of The World

ALAN YU

"It's on the left," he says. "No, it's southeast of here," she says.

Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.

She says the difference lies in language. Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says the Australian aboriginal language doesn't use words like left or right. It uses compass points, so they say things like "that girl to the east of you is my sister."

If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice.

Researchers are starting to study how those changes happen, says Aneta Pavlenko, a professor of applied linguistics at Temple University. She studies bilingualism and is the author of an upcoming book on this work.

If people speaking different languages need to group or observe things differently, then bilinguals ought to switch focus depending on the language they use. That's exactly the case, according to Pavlenko.

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

Based on her research, she started teaching future language teachers how to help their English-speaking students group things in Russian. If English-speaking students of Russian had to sort cups and glasses into different piles, then re-sort into chashka and stakan, they should sort them differently. She says language teachers could do activities like this with their students instead of just memorizing words.

"They feel generally that this acknowledges something that they've long expected, long wanted to do but didn't know how," Pavlenko says. "They felt that it moved them forward, away from teaching pronunciation and doing the 'repeat after me' activities."

Pavlenko points to research showing that if you're hungry, you'll pay more attention to food-related stimuli, and she says speaking another language fluently works the same way.

 

One's native language could also affect memory, says Pavlenko. She points to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was fully trilingual in English, French and Russian. She says Nabokov wrote three memoirs: He published one in English, and when another publishing house asked for one in Russian, he accepted, thinking he would simply translate his first memoir.

"When Nabokov started translating it into Russian, he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book," Pavlenko says. "It came out in Russian and he felt that in order to represent his childhood properly to his American readership, he had to produce a new version. So the version of Nabokov's autobiography we know now is actually a third attempt, where he had to recall more things in Russian and then re-translate them from Russian back into English."

Boroditsky also studied the differences in what research subjects remembered when using English, which doesn't always note the intent of an action, and Spanish, which does. This can lead to differences in how people remember what they saw, potentially important in eyewitness testimony, she says.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, acknowledges such differences but says they don't really matter. The experiments "show that there are these tiny differentials that you can find that seem to correlate with what language you speak," McWhorter says. "Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn't work."

He calls this "the language hoax," which happens to be the title of his upcoming book.

As an example, he refers to modern speakers of a Mayan language, who also use directions that roughly correspond to compass points, rather than left or right. Researchers asked people, most of whom only knew this language, to do tasks like memorizing how a ball moved through a maze, which would have been easier had they thought about it in terms of left and right, rather than compass points. The participants were just as good at these tasks and sometimes better, leading the experimenters to conclude they were not constrained by their language.

Boroditsky disagrees. She says the counterexamples simply prove language isn't the only factor affecting what we notice. Like studying to be a pilot or doctor, she says, learning to speak a different language fluently can also change us, and this means we can learn those changes, like learning any other skill.

"It's like a very extensive training program," Boroditsky says. "There's nothing exotic about the effects that language has on cognition. It's just the same that any learning has on cognition."

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/12/30/258376009/how-language-seems-to-shape-ones-view-of-the-world


New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism

BARBARA J. KING

An Indian schoolgirl dressed as Telugu Talli poses for the camera during a celebration in Hyderabad, home to a study that seems to show the onset of dementia is delayed for people who speak more than one language.

Noah Seelam/AFP

The largest study so far to ask whether speaking two languages might delay the onset of dementia symptoms in bilingual patients as compared to monolingual patients has reported a robust result. Bilingual patients suffer dementia onset an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only a single language.

While knowledge of a protective effect of bilingualism isn't entirely new, the present study significantly advances scientists' knowledge. Media reports emphasize the size of its cohort: 648 patients from a university hospital's memory clinic, including 391 who were bilingual. It's also touted as the first study to reveal that bilingual people who are illiterate derive the same benefit from speaking two languages as do people who read and write. It also claims to show that the benefit applies not only to Alzheimer's sufferers but also people with frontotemporal and vascular dementia.

Only when I read the research report itself, though, published in the journal Neurology and written by Suvarna Alladi and 7 co-authors, did I realize fully the brilliance of conducting this study in Hyderabad, India.

That choice of location, I believe, lends extra credibility to the study's results.

Here's why. India, as the researchers note, is a nation of linguistic diversity. In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.

The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:

In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.

In other words, thanks in large part to the study's cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.

What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:

The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.

Intriguingly, when a patient speaks three (or more) languages, no extra benefits accrue neurologically. Speaking a single language beyond one's native tongue is enough to do the trick.

So, now, my almost-monolingual brain is jealous.

I do know some conversational French, and I squeaked by speaking and comprehending enough Swahili to be polite and interactive while living in Kenya. But I've regretted not working up to full fluency in a second language. (As the "Learn to Speak Italian" tapes strewn around my house demonstrate, I haven't given up on this goal.)

The sounds of multiple languages swirling around me when I visit New York or Parisare enchanting, and I enjoy discussing with bilinguals the claims that switching between languages allows different personality traits to emerge within a single individual.

Being bilingual opens up new worlds of global connection and understanding, and almost certainly allows some degree of flexibility in personal expression, too.

Now we know, more concretely and convincingly than before, that there's a brain benefit to bilingualism, too.

Source: NPR online. https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/11/14/244813470/new-study-shows-brain-benefits-of-bilingualism

6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education

ANYA KAMENET

Chelsea Beck/NPR

Part of our ongoing series exploring how the U.S. can educate the nearly 5 millionstudents who are learning English.

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we've learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings.

But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: bilingual education. "In the last 20 years or so, there's been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism," says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Again and again, researchers have found, "bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime," in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

At the same time, one of the hottest trends in public schooling is what's often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

Traditional programs for English-language learners, or ELLs, focus on assimilating students into English as quickly as possible. Dual-language classrooms, by contrast, provide instruction across subjects to both English natives and English learners, in both English and in a target language.

The goal is functional bilingualism and biliteracy for all students by middle school.

New York City, North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, Oregon and Washington state are among the places expanding dual-language classrooms.

The trend flies in the face of some of the culture wars of two decades ago, when advocates insisted on "English first" education. Most famously, California passed Proposition 227 in 1998. It was intended to sharply reduce the amount of time that English-language learners spent in bilingual settings.

Proposition 58, passed by California voters on Nov. 8, largely reversed that decision, paving the way for a huge expansion of bilingual education in the state that has the largest population of English-language learners.

Some of the insistence on English-first was founded in research produced decades ago, in which bilingual students underperformed monolingual English speakers and had lower IQ scores.

Today's scholars, like Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, now say that research was "deeply flawed."

"Earlier research looked at socially disadvantaged groups," agrees Antonella Sorace at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. "This has been completely contradicted by recent research" that compares more similar groups to each other.

So what does recent research say about the potential benefits of bilingual education? NPR Ed called up seven researchers in three countries — Sorace, Bialystok, Luk, Kroll, Jennifer Steele, and the team of Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier — to find out.

Attention

It turns out that, in many ways, the real trick to speaking two languages consists in managing not to speak one of those languages at a given moment — which is fundamentally a feat of paying attention.

Saying "Goodbye" to mom and then "Guten tag" to your teacher, or managing to ask for a crayola roja instead of a red crayon, requires skills called "inhibition" and "task switching." These skills are subsets of an ability called executive function.

People who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of executive function. "[Bilinguals] can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve in the ability to switch from one task to another," says Sorace.

Do these same advantages accrue to a child who begins learning a second language in kindergarten instead of as a baby? We don't yet know. Patterns of language learning and language use are complex. But Gigi Luk at Harvard cites at least one brain-imaging study on adolescents that shows similar changes in brain structure when compared with those who are bilingual from birth, even when they didn't begin practicing a second language in earnest before late childhood.

Empathy

Young children being raised bilingual have to follow social cues to figure out which language to use with which person and in what setting. As a result, says Sorace, bilingual children as young as age 3 have demonstrated a head start on tests of perspective-taking and theory of mind — both of which are fundamental social and emotional skills.

Reading (English)

About 10 percent of students in the Portland, Ore., public schools are assigned by lottery to dual-language classrooms that offer instruction in Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, alongside English.

Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trial and found that these dual-language students outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year's worth of learning by the end of middle school.

Such a large effect in a study this size is unusual, and Steele is currently conducting a flurry of follow-up studies to tease out the causality: Is this about a special program that attracted families who were more engaged? Or about the dual-language instruction itself?

"If it's just about moving the kids around," Steele says, "that's not as exciting as if it's a way of teaching that makes you smarter."

Steele suspects the latter. Because the effects are found in reading, not in math or science where there were few differences, she suggests that learning two languages makes students more aware of how language works in general, aka "metalinguistic awareness."

The research of Gigi Luk at Harvard offers a slightly different explanation. She has recently done a small study looking at a group of 100 fourth-graders in Massachusetts who had similar reading scores on a standard test, but very different language experiences.

Some were foreign-language dominant and others were English natives. Here's what's interesting. The students who were dominant in a foreign language weren't yet comfortably bilingual; they were just starting to learn English. Therefore, by definition, they had much weaker English vocabularies than the native speakers.

Yet they were just as good at decoding a text.

"This is very surprising," Luk says. "You would expect the reading comprehension performance to mirror vocabulary — it's a cornerstone of comprehension."

How did the foreign-language dominant speakers manage this feat? Well, Luk found, they also scored higher on tests of executive functioning. So, even though they didn't have huge mental dictionaries to draw on, they may have been great puzzle-solvers, taking into account higher-level concepts such as whether a single sentence made sense within an overall story line.

They got to the same results as the monolinguals, by a different path.

School performance and engagement.

Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, a husband and wife team of professors emeritus at George Mason University in Virginia, have spent the past 30 years collecting evidence on the benefits of bilingual education.

"Wayne came to our research with skepticism, thinking students ought to get instruction all day in English," says Virginia Collier. "Eight million student records later, we're convinced," Wayne Thomas chimes in.

In studies covering six states and 37 districts, they have found that, compared with students in English-only classrooms or in one-way immersion, dual-language students have somewhat higher test scores and also seem to be happier in school. Attendance is better, behavioral problems fewer, parent involvement higher.

Diversity and integration.

American public school classrooms as a whole are becoming more segregated by race and class. Dual-language programs can be an exception. Because they are composed of native English speakers deliberately placed together with recent immigrants, they tend to be more ethnically and socioeconomically balanced. And there is some evidence that this helps kids of all backgrounds gain comfort with diversity and different cultures.

Several of the researchers I talked with also pointed out that, in bilingual education, non-English-dominant students and their families tend to feel that their home language is heard and valued, compared with a classroom where the home language is left at the door in favor of English.

This can improve students' sense of belonging and increase parent involvement in their children's education, including behaviors like reading to children.

"Many parents fear their language is an obstacle, a problem, and if they abandon it their child will integrate better," says Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh. "We tell them they're not doing their child a favor by giving up their language."

Protection against cognitive decline and dementia.

File this away as a very, very long-range payoff. Researchers have found that actively using two languages seems to have a protective effect against age-related dementia — perhaps relating to the changes in brain structure we talked about earlier.

Specifically, among patients with Alzheimer's in a Canadian study, a group of bilingual adults performed on par with a group of monolingual adults in terms of cognitive tests and daily functioning. But when researchers looked at the two groups' brains, they found evidence of brain atrophy that was five to seven years more advanced in the bilingual group. In other words, the adults who spoke two languages were carrying on longer at a higher level despite greater degrees of damage.

The coda, and a caution

One theme that was striking in speaking to all these researchers was just how strongly they advocated for dual-language classrooms.

Thomas and Collier have advised many school systems on how to expand their dual-language programs, and Sorace runs "Bilingualism Matters," an international network of researchers who promote bilingual education projects.

This type of advocacy among scientists is unusual; even more so because the "bilingual advantage hypothesis" is being challenged once again. A review of studies published last year found that cognitive advantages failed to appear in 83 percent of published studies, though in a separate meta-analysis, the sum of effects was still significantly positive.

One potential explanation offered by the researchers I spoke with is that advantages that are measurable in the very young and very old tend to fade when testing young adults at the peak of their cognitive powers.

And, they countered that no negative effects of bilingual education have been found. So, they argue that even if the advantages are small, they are still worth it.

Not to mention one obvious, outstanding fact underlined by many of these researchers: "Bilingual children can speak two languages! That's amazing," says Bialystok.

Source: NPR online. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education