Being bilingual is like going to a ‘brain gym’

A York researcher has identified a new and interesting exercise for the brain and a little “Ça va bien?” has a lot to do with it.

Being bilingual helps keep you mentally fit and prevents the loss of your mental edge as you age, according to York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok, distinguished research professor with the Faculty of Arts.

Right: Ellen Bialystok

“Being bilingual is like going to a brain gym,” says Bialystok. “Handling a language is a big task for the brain’s ‘executive function’, the area that keeps you focused on navigating through your day, doing what matters and avoiding distractions. Handling two languages is even more work. Every time you have to put together a sentence, you’ve got two possible ways of saying everything, two possible ways of responding. Every time you use language as a bilingual (person), you’re exercising these very important functions,” she said.

Bialystok says speaking a second language even enhances physical changes in the brain, pumping up more blood to carry more oxygen. In a series of cognitive tests with middle-aged and elderly people in Toronto, she found those who have been bilingual since childhood are better able to manage their attention in a complex set of rapidly changing tasks designed to distract them. This is separate, however, from any problems of Alzheimer’s disease; her work deals with normal aging. “If I can get political for a minute, I think that governments in Canada should be paying a lot of attention to this,” she said.

The study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology and Aging, concludes being bilingual appears to yield widespread benefits across a range of complex cognitive tasks.

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