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How the elderly brain benefits from bilingualism

Sustained use of both languages may protect the bilingual elderly from age-related cognitive decline, according to a recent study from Singapore on switching language frequently.

The speed and efficiency of the brain tends to decline naturally with age, leading to a search for lifestyle factors that might help to protect against this depressing prospect. Alongside physical activity and education, there is increasing support for bilingualism as a non-medical therapy for the aging brain.

The aim of the study by Chan et al, was to see whether it matters how actively each of the two languages are used. To do this, they recruited 76 Singaporeans aged between 60 and 84 years old, bilingual in a Chinese dialect and English. The participants were quizzed on their use of both languages to find out whether they used both equally or tended to use mainly one, switching back into the dominant language frequently.

Next, they were given a battery of tests assessing a range of cognitive functions relating, for example, to working memory, attention and also inhibition, which has been touted as a bilingual advantage (see story this page).

The researchers found that using both languages equally, with less language switching, predicted higher scores on tests associated with attention. This is supported by previous research suggesting that there is more cognitive effort in the focussed used of one language while supressing the other language than in frequent language switching.

The team did not find links between this more focussed use of either language and other cognitive functions such as working memory, suggesting that different aspects of language use exercise and strengthen different processes.

With the decline in learning languages other than English in schools and the rise of automated translation, studies like these are a reminder that cradle-to-grave bilingualism remains a valuable asset. Additional research identifying how best to use a second language to bolster working memory in the older brain would be especially welcome.


Chan, C. G. H., Yow, W. Q. and Oei, A. 2020. Active Bilingualism in Aging: Balanced Bilingualism Usage and Less Frequent Language Switching Relate to Better Conflict Monitoring and Goal Maintenance Ability, Journals of Gerontology, Psychological Sciences doi:10.1093/geronb/gbaa058

Image courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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