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Is the bilingual brain superior?
published April 16, 2012


There have always been a number of good reasons for teaching children a second language. Now YorkU research shows kids who speak a second language are actually smarter than their monolingual playmates! It doesn’t matter what the language is—a new paper by a York University professor finds speaking more than one language has wide-ranging cognitive health benefits for children, adults and seniors.

Ellen Bialystok

The Study
Professor Ellen Bialystok and co-authors reviewed recent studies using behavioural and neuroimaging methods to examine the effects of bilingualism on cognition across the lifespan. Their review builds on earlier evidence of its benefits for children’s cognitive development.

Their Findings
The study, published March 29, 2012 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciencesrevealed some surprising results. The researchers found bilingualism protects against cognitive decline by boosting cognitive reserve and delaying the onset of dementia symptoms. The review also suggests the increasing diversity in world populations may have an unexpected positive impact on the resiliency of the adult brain.

“Our conclusion is that lifelong experience in managing attention to two languages reorganizes specific brain networks, creating a more effective basis for executive control and sustaining better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan,” said Bialystok, a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health.

The study points out that understanding how bilingualism impacts cognitive reserve is crucial in the context of an aging population.

“The possibility that bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve is certainly of growing importance,” said Bialystok. “Overall we’ve found that bilingualism has benefits in every stage of life. It should not be surprising that intense and sustained experience leaves its mark on our minds, and it is now clear that the bilingual brain has been uniquely shaped by experience.”

This was not always the case: researchers once assumed the effects of speaking more than one language would be negative. In the 1920s, bilingualism was even thought to contribute to lower scores on intelligence tests.

“Nearly a century later, and in the face of substantial evidence that contradicts this assumption, there is still a push by educators and clinicians to ‘simplify’ their children’s linguistic environment whenever there are signs of academic difficulties,” Bialystok said. “Their well-intentioned goal is to minimize confusion, but those strategies are based on fear and anecdote, rather than science.”

The study is co-authored by Fergus Craik, Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest and Gigi Luk, Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Steven Clarke says:

Thanks, York U, for confirming my massive intelligence! :)

C.Marhue says:

Hi Ellen,

Its an interesting study. So, continue the good work and publish practical findings for the uninitiated.


Catherine Hildebrand says:

I have also found that returning to the use of a second language learned in school and used throughout one’s earlier years is conducive to obliterating the idea that old dogs can’t learn new tricks idea… I am currently teaching Grade 12 Math with great success…this was not a subject I excelled at in school…I was one of the few, in fact, who was allowed to drop it in Grade 10… with a promise not to take it ever again…the teacher said nothing about teaching it… :-)

Judy Wiebe says:

While I fully agree that bilingualism expands the brain’s ability to function more effectively, I’m not sure how that translates into assisting children with academic difficulties. Until we begin to appreciate that we can be intelligent in other ways, and find a way to measure these ways, we can not assume that adding another language will help all children. The brain is a funny thing, I have one brilliant child who is fully bilingual and another that is extremely creative, but doesn’t do well academically. 

katherine govier says:

Nothing I read in this story justifies the claim that bilingual kids are actually 

“smarter”.  It’s a very misleading cutline and not worthy of an academic publication. 

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