Speaking two languages may slow brain aging

Bilingualism has hit the headlines this week with the news that learning a second language might bring cognitive benefits in later life – even when that second language is acquired in adulthood.

The study was led by Dr. Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh, whose other work suggests that bilingualism might delay the onset of dementia. The current study looked at tests such as verbal fluency, in 835 native English-speakers aged 70 or older. Of these participants, 195 people had learnt a second language before 18, and 65 had learnt a second language after 18. The researchers compared people’s scores on the tests aged 70 with their IQ scores age 11.

The results showed that people who spoke a second language performed better on the tests than would be predicted from their early IQ results, relative to their monolingual peers. There were no differences between early versus late second language learners. In other words, learning a second language may slow brain aging.

These findings are important because they can help us answer the question of cause and effect. There are two possible reasons why bilinguals might show an advantage on cognitive tests. The first possibility is that people who have better cognitive ability to begin with are more likely to go on and learn another language. The second possibility is that learning a second language improves people’s cognitive ability. This study suggests that the second possibility is more likely – bilinguals did better on the tests than their childhood IQ scores would have predicted.

The fact that learning a language in adulthood seems to give the same advantage as learning a language in childhood is a highly relevant in the UK, where many people think that bilingualism only refers to people who grew up speaking two languages equally well. In fact, the advantages of bilingualism are relevant to anyone who uses a second language, whether they learnt it in the family, at school, or later on in the workplace. As Dr. Thomas Bak says, “Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

The study has been widely reported in the media including articles on the BBC health section, as well as daily news sites such as the Telegraph, the Times of India , and the Huffington Post , and science-specific sites such as Medical News Today, Science Daily, and
NHS Choices.

The full study “Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?” was published online in the Annals of Neurology, on 2nd June 2014.

Bilingualism and Special Needs

bilingual mother and child


Adam Beck has compiled an incredibly helpful and inspiring list of resources on bilingualism and special needs, with many parents’ contributions about how bilingualism has lessened or alleviated the difficulties inherent to their children’s education.

Check it out here

UofE study on Bilingualism and Dementia takes the media by storm


A study about bilingualism and dementia led by the University of Edinburgh’s own Thomas Bak, in partnership with Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India has taken the media by storm.

It has been reviewed and reported in over a hundred media sources, including national networks such as the BBC and NBC news, CBS and SPS, dailies such as the Huffington Post and the Times of India and the Japan Times  and health web platforms such as the NHS or Health24, or scientific publications such as the New ScientistScienceDaily and the National Geographic.

The study, published in the American magazine Neurology, surveyed over 600 patients and found that on average, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones, irrespective of educational achievement, sex, profession or lifestyle. This is the first study of its kind to include illiterate subjects, showing that bilingualism is a health asset for anyone. The study was even reported by the Daily Mail, which reads that being bilingual could be better than any currently available medication as a cure for dementia.

It is encouraging to see how widely this publication has been received, we hope that it will encourage parents to protect their linguistic heritage and teach their children to do the same.

Tromsø International Conference on Language Diversity

Tromso International Conference on Language Diversity

Antonella Sorace sat on the panel of a debate about linguistic diversity and education in the Tromsø International Conference on Language Diversity. The Conference took place on 7th November 2013 as part the Norwegian Language Year. 

For more information about the Norwegian language Year, visit the Språkåret 2013 website.

Conference Program

The conference boasted a lively and engaging program, including:

  • six internationally renowned keynote speakers
  • three invited workshops
  • two accepted thematic workshops
  • two panel discussions
  • a panel debate
  • almost 40 exiting general session papers drawing on a variety of languages and language situations
  • To learn more about the conference and to watch the keynote speeches and panel discussions click here.

    University of Edinburgh

    The University was well-represented at the conference. Professor Sorace also led a workshop about “Bilingualism, Biliteracy and Cognition” with Yulia Rodina from Tromsø University.
    Students Mariana Vega-Mendoza and Holly West, and lecturer Dr. Thomas Bak were present to talk about their work on late unbalanced bilingualism.
    Dr. Fiona O’Hanlon from the University’s Celtic and Scottish studies department presented the case of Gaelic-medium education in Scotland.

    Hermitage Park Primary School

    Bilingualism Matters will visit Hermitage Park Primary School in Edinburgh on 7 June 2013.

    A presentation at the TeamWork National Translation Conference in the Netherlands

    Antonella Sorace will be one of the keynote speakers at the National Translation Conference in Amersfoort, The Netherlands on Saturday 25 May 2013.

    Visit the Teamwork website for more information (in Dutch), and read a short biography on Antonella on their website here (in English).

    Three seminars in Sardinia on Sardinian-Italian bilingualism

    Bilingualism Matters director Antonella Sorace gave three seminars (including one to an audience of 9-12 year old children) in Sardinia on Sardinian-Italian bilingualism: a privilege and a great opportunity.

    Meet Bilingualism Matters at the Edinburgh Cafe Scientifique

    Antonella Sorace will give a talk at the Edinburgh Cafe Scientifique on Monday 13 May. The talk will be held in the Filmhouse Cinema Café Bar on 88 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9BZ and starts at 8:30pm. Read the abstract of Antonella’s talk below.

    Is bilingualism good or bad for you?

    Research has shown that bilingualism (broadly intended as fluency in more than one language) brings a range of linguistic and cognitive benefits that go far beyond knowledge of two languages and extend to the whole lifespan. Compared to monolinguals, both child and adult bilinguals have better spontaneous understanding of language structure, more effective selective attention, and greater mental flexibility. However, many people still think that bilingualism, especially in children, is a disadvantage. Antonella will talk about the most popular myths about bilingualism and how they are contradicted by research. Antonella will also discuss the importance of disseminating information about how the bilingual brain works.

    Why language learning in children and adults always matters

    Any child can learn more than one language without any effort.Bilingualism makes children’s brain more flexible, improves their attention, and gives them a range of benefits that last a lifetime.

    But what about learning a second language later in life? Many people think it is difficult for adults to learn a second language well, but research shows that adults can reach very high proficiency levels and get many mental advantages too.

    Edinburgh Central Library Saturday 16 March, 2013, 14:00 – 16:00


    Speaking in tongues

    An event at Innovative Learning Week at the University of Edinburgh on how to engage research in society. A screening of the film-documentary “Speaking in Tongues” (60 minutes), followed by debate/discussion on multilingualism in the UK and the importance of information, led by Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics and Director of Bilingualism Matters.