Some grow up speaking one language at home with their family and another at school and with their friends. Being bilingual can help these people find jobs, communicate with a wider range of individuals, and, as one study found, may even improve their cognitive flexibility into old age.
The new study discovered this bilingual benefit by analyzing the brain activity of adults between the ages of 60 and 68 while they carrying out a task designed to test cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Some of the seniors were bilingual while others only spoke one language.
Another mixed group of bilingual and monolingual participants was also observed performing the same task, the only difference being that this group was made up of younger individuals.
Typically, our cognitive flexibility gradually becomes worse as people get older so obviously the younger participants completed the task quicker than the older group.
However, although there was no difference in how fast the task was performed between the bilingual individuals and those who only spoke a single language in the younger group, the seniors who were bilingual were able to carry out the task in less time than the monolingual seniors.
Moreover, the bilingual seniors also had to use less energy in their prefrontal cortex to complete the task leading researchers to believe that from years of going back and forth between different languages, it is easier for people to switch between various tasks as well.
“Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging,” study author Brian T. Gold, Ph.D., at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine was quoted as saying.
So the benefits of bilingualism on cognitive flexibility cannot be seen until a person reaches their senior years, but you can start learning another language right away in order to reap the rewards!
Source: The Journal of Neuroscience, 9 January 2013