Late language learners show improved mental agility

Learning a second language can boost cognitive performance even in late learners, suggests a new study.

Researchers from Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh tested the mental agility of almost 200 university students, divided into those who did or did not study modern languages. Results showed that the linguists showed more improvement in thinking skills than the non-linguists.

Students were asked, for example, to switch between counting upwards and downwards (to measure their attention switching abilities), or to name as many words beginning with a certain letter (to measure their verbal fluency). The results of first year students were compared with those of fourth year students, in order to measure the improvement in thinking skills that students acquired over the course of a degree. For both the language students and the monolingual humanities students, fourth year students scored significantly higher in verbal fluency than first year students, thus confirming the benefits of general learning (regardless of subject). However, the students on modern languages courses showed significantly more improvement in their ability to switch attention than their monolingual peers, suggesting an additional cognitive boost when we learn another language.

These findings add to previous research highlighting the possible cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language, including delayed onset of dementia symptoms and slower cognitive decline in older adults. Crucially however, these new findings suggest that you don’t have to speak a second language from a very young age in order to reap the benefits. Instead, the benefits can become apparent in young adults after only a few years study.

Dr Thomas Bak, one of the study authors, said:

“Our study demonstrates that learning languages is not only good for a person’s career and social life, but also has beneficial effects on cognitive functions, which go well beyond the language itself. The really good news is that these benefits are available to everyone, whether or not we grew up in a bilingual household”.

So if your other new year’s resolutions have already fallen by the way side, why not benefit your brain by signing up to a language course?

The study has been widely reported in the Scottish media
learning a language boosts mental agility (The Herald, 15 January 2015))
language learning boosts thinking skills (The Herald, 16 January 2015)
learning a second language can boost thinking (The Scotsman, 16 January 2015)
As well as a Spanish language article in Medical press (Medical Press, 20 January 2015)

Read the full article here (restricted access):
Vega-Mendoza, M., West, H., Sorace, A., Bak, T.H. (2015). The impact of late, non-balanced bilingualism on cognitive performance. Cognition, 137, 40-46. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.008