Shortly after Kathy Jones relocated to California, the retired professor decided she needed to learn to speak Spanish.
“When I moved to San Diego, I would see all these young kids, mostly Latino kids, who could speak perfect Spanish and perfect English. And switch, back and forth, with fluidity. And I saw that and I don’t know why, but I said to myself, I want to be able to do that,” she says.
Jones looked forward to her weekly Spanish class and loved the extracurricular activities organized by her teachers at the Culture and Language Center in San Diego.
“Before the pandemic, we had meet-ups for coffee, parties, craft workshops and excursions all over Latin America – all totally in Spanish. We haven’t been able to do any of that since March.”
Jones is still keeping up with her classes, but they’re all online now. Her classmate is a friend who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and their teacher is based in Tijuana. Her online sessions are providing some much-needed social interaction while Jones and her husband hunker down in their home.
Since Jones has been such a dedicated pupil, she’s almost reached fluency. And that could be good for her brain.
Some of the most compelling research on bilingualism and aging comes from Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto.
“The more you use another language, the better you get at it. Well, that’s not surprising, but along with that, the more you use two languages, the more your brain subtly rewires,” she says.
And when it comes to the beneficial effects bilingualism has on the brain, education levels do not matter. In fact, the most profound effects were found in people who were illiterate and had no education. Bilingualism was their only real source of mental stimulation, and as they got older, it provided protection for their aging brains.
Tamar Gollan of the University of California San Diego Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center explains it this way: “Bilingualism doesn’t prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s disease; it doesn’t prevent brain damage from happening if you have the disease. What it does is it makes you continue to function, even in the face of having damage to the brain. You can imagine an athlete with an injury crossing the finish line, even though they’re injured.”
So why does being bilingual have any effect at all?
“The effect it has is, I believe, is on the attention system,” Bialystok says. “This is what cognition is, knowing what you need to attend to, and blocking out the rest.”
Bialystok believes the experience of using two languages effectively reorganizes your brain.
“So that means the more experience with bilingualism leads to greater changes. The longer you’re bilingual, the more the changes. The earlier you start being bilingual, the more the changes. The more intense your bilingual experience is on a daily basis, the more the changes.”
“When you’re bilingual,” Gollan explains, “you can’t turn one language off, so you’re constantly having to face choices that monolingual speakers don’t have to make. So in addition, you have to ‘work hard’ to be bilingual.”
People who are highly educated, or people who have very demanding jobs, might have similar benefits with later onset of Alzheimer’s disease. They still get the disease, but all that hard work their brains did over the years makes it more resilient, for longer.
Use it or lose it
Research is ongoing when it comes to bilingualism and the brain, and more benefits could still be found.
But in the meantime, what’s an older person to do? Is it too late to reap the benefits of learning a second language?
“In later life language learning we can see narrower – but significant – benefits of the same variety that we see in lifelong bilinguals,” Bialystok says.
Jones wasn’t trying to do something for her brain when she started learning Spanish. But she subscribes to a “use it or lose it” approach when it comes to lifelong learning.
“People will says that as you exercise more, you expand your capacity for oxygen. Well, I think as you exercise your brain more, you expand the capacity for the brain to learn more things and keep flexible.”
Other ways to boost your brain:
Get lots of sleep (make this a priority).
Keep your brain active and stimulated.
Why you should go to movies and concerts
Bilingualism is just one way to create “cognitive reserve” for your brain. The important thing, Bialystok says, is keeping your brain active and engaged throughout your lifetime. And since older adults aren’t typically exposed to all the different classes and clubs associated with going to school and getting an education, it’s important for your brain to keep seeking out those things as you age.
Even going to a concert counts, Bialystok says.
“And if you go with a friend and you have dinner after, that’s a lifestyle, and it’s good for you. Social interaction is good. Because when you’re interacting with someone, you’re using a lot of your brain,” says Bialystok.
What’s hard for your brain, is good for your brain
Jigsaw and crossword puzzles probably aren’t going to be stimulating enough to really give your brain the workout it needs, so aim for something a little more challenging.
“Choose an activity that interests you so it’s not just a chore,” Bialystok says. “Something that engages you. It’s not going to be a panacea. But the more engaged you are in a difficult problem, the better it is for your brain. What’s hard for your brain, is good for your brain.”
Don’t let your brain rot
Bialystok also recommends exercise: “Aerobic exercise is the best brain medicine there is, bar none.”
It all adds up. People who spend a lifetime challenging their brain fare better in old age.
“It’s also why we see smaller effects on bilingualism in more privileged communities and more privileged groups because they already go to the gym, they already go to concerts. They have social groups, engagement with other people. It’s all helpful,” she says.
Bottom line: “Don’t let your brain rot.”
Other benefits of bilingualism
So in the search for activities to keep your brain active, learning a new language is a good bet.
“Because even if you don’t become bilingual, learning a language is hard,” Bialystok says.
Gollan agrees. “The nice thing about bilingualism is if you’re bilingual, you can reap all the benefits of these related things in one. Because now you have a much broader audience of people you can talk to, and talking to people is good.”
For Jones, her language classes have benefits she wasn’t even considering.
“I think learning a language opens horizons that maybe you don’t even think about. It exposes you to art, it exposes you to culture. … There’s a community of people that like to learn languages. They’re almost always super interesting, like to travel, and have lots of experiences, [they] value other cultures, exposure to new things. They make a good community of friends, which is wonderful.”