brain boosting effects of bilingualism

Michelle Liu
June 20, 2024

When my parents immigrated from Taiwan to the U.S., they didn’t know much English. They had to learn quickly to assimilate and communicate. Being bilingual has helped them socially and in their careers; my mom became an interpreter at a hospital.

My dad helped launch "Springfield Taiwan Day," connecting the two countries he calls home.

Being fluent in more than one language can also keep their brains sharp. We spoke with Alan Wolfson, M.D., a Honolulu psychiatrist, about how being bilingual is good for brain health. 

Slowing down time
While bilingualism doesn’t prevent age-related diseases, it can delay the start of symptoms. Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that people who knew more than one language were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four to five years later than monolingual patients.

“Having more time to experience life is priceless,” says Dr. Wolfson.

Since the bilingual mind is constantly engaged with both languages, intellectually stimulating the brain, which creates cognitive reserve, the brain’s ability to maintain cognitive capacity after damage.

Think of it as a reserve that people have built up throughout their lives; those who speak more than one language have more brain resources to draw on as they age. Studies show that higher cognitive reserve can protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms, even if brain scans show the disease is present.

“To know that we may be losing our ability to function due to dementia or another illness sooner than expected doesn’t mean that the time we have left is useless or less valuable,” says Dr. Wolfson. “Many people actually find deeper meaning and purpose during these times since they’re forced to process what their life truly means to them.”

Thinking outside the box
My siblings and I grew up speaking some Mandarin, but we’re nowhere near as fluent as my nieces, Emma and Annabelle, who are 12 and 8. They’ll chat with each other in English and converse in Chinese with our family in Taiwan.

Emma and Annabelle speaking in Chinese with their great aunt and great grandmother in Taiwan.

Emma and Annabelle have been able to speak both languages since they learned how to talk. Being bilingual at such a young age has the benefit of advanced problem-solving skills.

That’s because switching between languages strengthens cognitive flexibility, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to new situations and think about two concepts simultaneously. For people who are bilingual, it may be easier to view different perspectives and find creative solutions to problems.

Those were the days
At our family gatherings, it’s always fun to reminisce about my nieces’ toddler years (Emma was sweet and kind, while Annabelle was adorably mischievous). As we chat about a family beach trip, zoo outing, or dinner at fancy restaurants, I’m always surprised when the girls pipe up and say, ‘I remember that!’ And they do – they add details that none of us mentioned, but are accurate, nonetheless.

Emma reading her Chinese homework to Annabelle at her kindergarten graduation.

According to the NIH, bilingual children may have an advantage in terms of greater working memory capacity. Because they process and manage the two languages simultaneously whenever one is activated, they can retain information more efficiently.

Similarly, multitasking may also come more easily to bilingual kids. With both languages always in their mind, they can block out any interference and quickly switch back and forth between tasks as needed.

And people in Hawaii may already speak more languages than they realize. Official languages in Hawaii are English and Hawaiian. Pidgin English (also called Hawaiian Pidgin or Hawaii Creole English) has been recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau since 2015.

Pidgin is an English-based creole language that started during the 1800s on sugarcane plantations in Hawaii to help workers from various ethnic groups communicate with each other. Pidgin has been influenced by many different languages, including American English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese, Okinawan, Ilocano, and Korean.

With all this in mind, perhaps it’s time for me to brush up on my Mandarin!

Stay mentally sharp
Check out the other benefits of knowing more than one language and read about other ways to boost your brain health and exercise your mind:

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