Adaptation of the brain could also be the reason older bilinguals with Alzheimer’s show fewer signs of cognitive malfunction than those who only speak one language. “The brain is more robust, its abilities and functionality are more distributed, so when Alzheimer’s begins to take effect, a bilingual’s brain is better able to adapt,” says Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystok. “It can draw on different parts of the brain to complete a task, rather than limiting itself to one area.”
Of course, the next question is, How can I get myself some of this bilingual brain ability?
“Unfortunately, these benefits aren’t necessarily going to be seen in individuals who choose to learn a second language later in life,” says Bialystok. “Fluency is required, and the second language needs to be spoken regularly, too, as in a situation where a child speaks one language at school and another at home.”
Furthermore, the benefits of dual language aren’t as strong if the second language is learned as an older adult. “Two languages need to be spoken regularly from at least the age of 20,” adds Bialystok. “But that’s not to say that learning another language after that age isn’t good for the brain. There is plenty of evidence that shows learning new things, including languages, helps prevent the onset of age-related mental degeneration. This brain adaptability that we see with bilinguals is different [from] that.”
For more on bilingualism read my article “How Being Bilingual (As A Child) Betters Your Brain” from the same issue of Brain World magazine.