Skip to content

Polyglots For Ever?


Life piled on life were all too much… (Tennyson)

Language learner's MRI scan (Tan et al 2011)


There has been a continuing series of reports in the various news media about the link between reduced risk of developing dementia and the benefits of learning a second or further language, whether in childhood or later life.

For example, Richard Alleyne, reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph about the work of Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Canada. She and her colleagues looked at the medical records of 228 patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s and compared them to their language abilities, noting an apparent delay of onset of up to 5 years among those who had  learned foreign languages.

But, delightful though that may be for those of us who promote foreign language learning (see HELLO English), a moment’s thought would cause one to ask questions.

For example, we know that the people who learn second and further languages are relatively better educated and more affluent than society as a whole. This group is also generally more healthy, better fed and exercised than the mainstream. It might be reasonable to assume, therefore, that while there is a correlation between language learning and degenerative delay, there is also likely to be a similar connection with affluence and a generally healthy lifestyle.

While this is hardly a randomised controlled trial, it is a substantial piece of work and it has been widely reported following its presentation in the 2011 Washington conference. So, although the text is not yet available online, we must assume that such simplistic concerns have been addressed. However, they are nowhere reported, even in the supposedly informed professional press.

Whilst we are on the subject, shouldn’t we also look for a gender element here too? There is a body of evidence that girls are better language learners than boys in the UK. I do not have figures for the Canadian school system – from which Dr Bialystok drew her sample – but I would guess that this is a pretty stable relationship: across countries and over time. And, as reports indicate that extra language learning and reduced dementia appear to be linked to an increased capacity to multi-task – an attribute most often associated with women – we would have to question why issues of gender have not been discussed.

But, wait a moment, aren’t we misunderstanding this somewhat? Surely, at present, the trend noted by Bialystok and her colleagues may be no more an apparent population characteristic which disguises quite complex social features among those of us who suffer with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But complex social and medical issues are not good copy, although they are what the experts in the field identify as important.

The Alzheimer’s Society, for example, calls for research into possible causal links between dementia and medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity) or lifestyle factors (including exercise, diet, toxic metals and stress). They are also particularly interested in the possible genetic origins of the condition and its relationship with vascular disease. Nowhere among all these important areas for further research is there any mention of language learning or, indeed, the many and various patent quackeries for brain training sold to stave-off old age.

So, in spite of all the research and reporting, learning another language will not definitively prevent you as an individual from getting dementia, but, as work by Tan (Tan et al 2011) has shown, it can strengthen alternative neural pathways in the fusiform and caudate regions of the brain which, should the need arise, will give your brain more options to cope with degenerative impairments.

Tan’s work appears to show that learning a second language requires an alternate path through the brain, correlating only with that second language, not with the primary language, and this is what may be giving some language learners an advantage. It would be interesting to see how brain activation changed as people become fluent in their second language. Does it always take this different processing path through the brain? Or as you become fluent, do the two paths begin to appear more similar?

For a slightly different take on this subject, an excellent paper by Daniel George calls for a re-framing to learn new languages for dementia. In an elegantly argued monograph, he asks whether we might not be able to postpone and ameliorate the impact of aging by revising the language we have learned to use to describe Alzheimer’s and those with dementia? “Choosing new language patterns can reshape our thoughts, attitudes, and actions towards our ageing neighbours and our own ageing brains, giving rise to a slightly different and more life-affirming reality that connects us to those who are ageing instead of hastening their social death.”

So, although learning a foreign language isn’t the silver bullet after all, sadly. It can’t definitively prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s, but it can be part of a healthy lifestyle, which might. It is hard to learn a foreign language, if you are not that way inclined. Perhaps it is easier and better for all of us if we could learn a new language to describe those around us who are getting older and who may have dementia.

And, for those who hate learning languages, this may be one case at least where what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.


Alleyne R (2011); Learn a second language to delay dementia by five years; The Daily Telegraph; p.13; 19.02.11

Bialystok E (2011); Protective Effects of Bilingualism for Cognitive Aging and Dementia; 2011 Meeting of the AAAS; Washington; Friday, February 18, 2011: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM

Bialystok, E., et al. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia 45: 459-464.

Bialystok, E. & Shapero, D. (2005). Ambiguous benefits: the effect of bilingualism on reversing ambiguous figures. Developmental Science 8: 595-604.

George DR (2010); Overcoming the social death of dementia through language; The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9741, pp.586 – 587, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61286-X

Tan LH, Chen L, Yip V, Chan AH, Yang J, Gao JH, & Siok WT (2011). Activity levels in the left hemisphere caudate-fusiform circuit predict how well a second language will be learned. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (6), 2540-4 PMID: 21262807

  1. per pro Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.
    E-mail :
    URL :
    Whois :

    IOne up, one down for me: I am learning Chinese now for two years (about my fifth language), and I am impossible at multi-tasking. – Oh, wait a moment Aren’t the multi-taskers already demented now – rushing through life like that??

    Four more observations:

    1. As a foreign English speaker I noticed that I am losing some of my mother tongue as my English is gaining. That would preclude your hope that the two pathways finally might merge.

    2. How about reversing the language argument: A new language does not make the brain smarter – only the smarter brains embark on learning a new language?

    3. Alzheimer’s is linked to lifestyle (eating habits, exercise, and so on) – but there are also strong hints of a genetic base: Alzheimer’s is more prevalent for instance in gluten-intolerant individuals (Irish, Scots and English top the list of celiacs).

    4. The whole language argument might be too narrow: Isn’t it the exposure to a whole new culture what makes the brain explode with joy and energy?

    As always, you make me thinking, Neil!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  2. As always, an intelligent and generous reading!
    I think Bialystok comes at this from neither a neuroscience point of view nor one of social philosophy. She is a psychologist with an interest in bilingualism. That said, she ought to have considered your first point. My brother, already a few years after moving to Denmark, began to get interference from his everyday language Danish into his English. Like you, he has over time lost a certain percentage of his mother tongue.
    But I don’t think that Tan’s work suggests there should be a ‘mother tongue motorway’ discrete and different from any ‘second language B-road ‘ or that they would merge in such circumstances. Rather that there are different constellations of interconnections that are created in different parts of the brain which can equally bear traffic but which together provide an enhanced protection against degeration.
    I think your second point is just what I was saying, really. Smarter, more affluent, better educated people are more likely to have had fun learning languages and look upon such activity as enjoyable and worthwhile in future.
    I grew up learning about languages at my granny’s knee – she could speak large parts of 9 languages, most of them fluently! My siblings and I probably haven’t got to that as a mean figure, but we are all up above five, I think.
    But I hold few hopes that this knowledge will protect us from the reaper’s blade when the time comes! It is far more likely that our genes – all grandparents very compos mentis well into ripe old age – or dissolute lifestyles will have a far greater impact!
    You hit the nail on the head, of course. It is so much about learning new forms of poetry, tragedy and humour – different cultural expression and new opportunities for expression and understanding… that should be why we learn a new language. Not just because someone tells us it’ll keep us from dementia in 5-50 years’ time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: