The Nuance

Why Learning a Foreign Language Is the Ultimate Brain Workout

It can also enrich your view of the world

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
7 min readJan 7, 2021

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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

For a groundbreaking 2010 study, a team of Canadian researchers explored the associations between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s disease.

At that time, it was known that socially and physically active older adults tended to enjoy a measure of protection from dementia, and the study team was interested to learn if the cognitive demands of bilingualism — the ability of speaking and understanding two or more languages — offered any similar protections.

To find out, they collected data on more than 200 people recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They found that people who spoke two or more languages developed Alzheimer’s symptoms an average of five years later in life than those who spoke only one language. This time gap persisted even after the study team controlled for occupation, education level, country of birth, and other variables. (Later follow-up work has supported these findings.)

“The brain needs exercise just like the body, or it winnows away.”

How could bilingualism protect the brain from dementia? The study authors highlight something called “cognitive reserve,” which they describe as the capacity of the brain to maintain proper functioning despite the onslaught of disease. “[Bilingualism] appears to contribute to cognitive reserve, which acts to compensate for the effects of accumulated neuropathology,” they write.

The brain is an organ, not a muscle. But several decades of brain research have revealed that, much like a muscle, the brain appears to benefit from effortful training. Once a person reaches and surpasses middle age, that kind of training may be necessary to prevent the sort of weakening and wasting that, for different reasons, also threatens the muscles. “The brain needs exercise just like the body, or it winnows away,” says Catherine Caldwell-Harris, PhD, a bilingualism researcher and associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University. “The phrase use it or lose it — there’s a lot of neuroscience behind that.”

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.