The benefits of a bilingual brain

Ellen Bialystok

York University Professors are undertaking ground-breaking research the impact of which is felt on a global stage. Psychology Professor This link will take you to another Web site Ellen Bialystok in the Faculty of Health is a shining example of this. An Officer of the Order of Canada, a Tier 1 York Research Chair (YRC)—the Walter Gordon York Research Chair in Lifespan Cognitive Development—and Distinguished Research Professor, she examines the effects of experience on cognitive function and brain organization across the lifespan, with a focus on bilingualism.

She recently authored a paper in This link will take you to another Web site Psychology Bulletin, with funding from the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the NIH National Institute on Aging. It is a comprehensive review of the research showing modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism.

She concluded that lifelong bilingualism involves adaptations that are linked to the brain’s performance.

“If experience can shape brain structure and cognitive ability, then bilingualism is a prime candidate for such effects,” Bialystok explains. “Bilingualism is an experience that has the potential to modify brain and cognitive systems more generally, much as enriched cages do for rats and socioeconomic status does for young children,” she adds.

More than half of the world’s population is multilingual, most researchers agree. They also believe that there’s a connection between bilingualism and cognitive and brain processes. This makes sense; it seems logical that because language is so wholly intermeshed with the human experience and the connections between linguistic and nonlinguistic processing. But Bialystok sought to dig deeper and investigate these connections, to find the modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism. To do this, she turned to existing literature, from the mid-1980s to present day (2017).

Her review of the literature describes, in considerable depth, studies investigating the relation between bilingualism and cognition in infants and children, younger and older adults, and patients, using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods. This paper illustrates the very best in literature reviews, as Bialystok succinctly and methodically presents decades of research in this area—a huge portion of which is her own work.

This article was adapted with permission from This link will take you to another Web site York University.

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