Bilingual Brain Advantage

During the decade politicians were banning bilingual education, I was in graduate school studying linguistics, including language acquisition–even bilingual language acquisition–and wishing we could all have bilingual (or trilingual) education. Children raised by parents with different native languages had the easiest time of it, especially those who conversed with each parent almost exclusively in their own languages. Next best would be learning any language while the language acquisition system was still open, as when children learn one language at school while speaking another at home.

And then there’s our system, where we not only discourage such home native language learning, we native English speakers postpone intense second language study until our brains have already pruned out the acquisition system that supports full fluency and native pronunciation. We’ve been robbed.

Fluently multilingual speakers have obvious career, travel, cultural, and social advantages. Many of you paid a social price as you developed these skills, along with the intellectual effort involved, but you end up with wider opportunities and, it stands to reason, amazing brains.

Now there are studies suggesting that you bilingual speakers might even delay the onset of Alzheimer disease. That’s how good a brain workout you’re getting, no matter which language you’re using. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok said in an NPR interview, “Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that’s going on in your brain.”1

The study, published in Neurology, included 211 Alzheimer patients, approximately half bilingual, and it concluded “that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences.” It confirmed findings of a previous study. 2

NPR’s Gretchen Cuda-Kroen reports that 20% of American homes speak another language at home, while around the world, there could be as many as two-thirds of children being raised bilingual.3

The economic advantage of a multilingual population hasn’t inspired our educational policy. Maybe it’s because we’re lacking that brain advantage in the first place.

  1. Ellen Bialystok, PhD, interview by Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011
  2. Fergus I.M. Craik, PhD, Ellen Bialystok, PhD, and Morris Freedman, MD. “”Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve.”.” Neurology. November 9, 2010. (accessed 04 04, 2011).
  3. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Thanks, Gwyn, for a great article! I read the same NPR piece. It’s a very interesting subject. I think being bilingual has many advantages. When I was in high school in Australia, I had started taking French as an elective but the school decided to abandon it before I could really take it anywhere. A few years ago I managed to motivate myself to take classes before moving to France. It’s a lot harder learning a language as an adult!

    In France it’s compulsory to learn other languages, and since I’ve been living in Europe I find that pretty much everyone speaks two languages – or more! If I ever have kids, regardless of what the school system says, I will be encouraging them to become multilingual.


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