Individual-Level Relationships between Social Capital and Self-Rated Health in a Bilingual Community

31 Jan

Hyyppä, M. T., & Mäki, J. (2001). Individual-Level Relationships between Social Capital and Self-Rated Health in a Bilingual Community. Preventive Medicine, 32(2), 148–155.

Previously, I have written about how bilingualism affects individual health. For example, research from Canada has shown that there is a delay in the onset of the symptoms of dementia in individuals who have spoken more than one language for the majority of their lives; and that in indigenous communities where the indigenous language is maintained, or revived, there is a significantly lower youth suicide rate in comparison to similar Canadian communities where the indigenous language is not maintained. Such studies confirm that, for the individual, learning to speak another language – and in the latter case, the language of one’s heritage – can have far-reaching positive effects on health.

The present study by Hyyppä and Mäki, examined how health and language interact in Finland. For starters, it is important to note that Finland is officially bilingual; most Finns are Finnish native speakers, but there is a small minority of native Swedish speakers (there are also other minority languages in Finland, such as Saami). One of Hyyppä and Mäki’s claims is that variables associated with health would differ across the two language groups even though all the individuals who responded to their large-scale survey (284 Finnish-speaking and 271 Swedish-speaking men and 374 Finnish-speaking and 355 Swedish-speaking women) came from the same bilingual Ostrobothnian municipalities in Finland, i.e. everyone had access to all the same health resources. This is different from other studies in which different language groups were geographically separate and hence might not have been exposed to all the same health resources.

Before embarking on the results of their own large-scale questionnaire, Hyyppä and Mäki provide some rather shocking results from similar studies in Finland, which are worth repeating here (references have been omitted, but are present in their original publication).

“Ever since epidemiological health surveys have been published in Finland, total mortality rates have favoured the Swedish-speaking minority. Significant disparities have been established in the annual suicide rates, violent and accidental death rates, and especially in cardiovascular mortality. The life expectancy of the Swedish-speaking people living in the Aland Islands and in Ostrobothnia ranks among the highest in the whole of Europe. Through 1991-1996, the Swedish-speaking men lived on average 8.7 years longer than their Finnish-speaking compatriots. Swedish-speaking women died at the age of 82.9 years and Finnish-speaking women at the age of 78.1 years. […] [W]e conducted surveys […] and found that the age of disability retirement fell at 48 years among the Swedish-speaking men and at 36 years among the Finnish-speaking men. For women, the corresponding ages were 53 and 45 years.” (p. 149)

To a certain degree, the results from Hyyppä and Mäki’s study corroborate these findings. For example, they found that Finnish speakers were more often unemployed than Swedish speakers; the Finnish population was more likely to drink until drunk than their compatriots; the Swedish speaking women were on average more educated than Finnish speaking women; and the Swedish speaking men were also more likely to participate in community events than the Finnish speaking males. Interestingly, the Finnish speaking population also showed more distrust. (Here, the specific questions were “Generally speaking, would you say most people can be trusted”? and “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance?”). However, Hyyppä and Mäki continue that in their study good self-rated health, disability, and diagnosed long-term diseases were equally frequent in both language groups, which is perhaps due to the fact that, indeed, all their participants had access to the same health resources given that they were all from the same geographical area.

Nevertheless, to explain the apparent disparities between the two language groups within the same bilingual Ostrobothnian municipalities in Finland, Hyyppä and Mäki propose that the Swedish-speaking group holds more social capital than the Finnish-speaking group. The term social capital originates from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who put forth the idea that material wealth is only one form of capital; according to Bourdieu, and subsequent linguists, language is a form of capital and people can be at the wealthier ends (here, speak Swedish) or at the poorer ends (here, speak Finnish) of the language capital’s scale.  For Hyyppä and Mäki, social capital refers to “the properties of the individuals who adopt positive feelings toward others and belong to voluntary associations, which have been shown to reduce psychological stress, and therefore may promote good health” (p. 149). Their suggested rather direct relationship between membership in voluntary associations and positive feelings towards the group is perhaps somewhat speculative. However, their more general claim that membership to a specific language group within a bilingual community may have social advantages over membership to the other language group – and that this membership can impact health – indeed appears to be validated by both the results from their own and colleague’s research.

That speaking one language over another can be socially advantageous is not really surprising. Some dialects are more “respected” than others, and likewise, some languages give rise to greater opportunities than others. Hyyppä and Mäki’s research is novel because it suggests that via social capital the use of one language over another links to the health of the speakers. To gather more information on this, it might be worthwhile to investigate bilingual families. What do the health prospects look like for Finnish-Swedish bilingual children in Finland? Do they diminish cross-generationally if Finnish becomes the dominant family language? It would also be worthwhile to investigate other bilingual communities (I’m thinking of cities which are officially bilingual, such as Montreal and Brussels, as well as cities which have high immigrant populations, such as London and Lyon). Here, it would be reasonable to assume that as the immigrant group acquires the language of the socially advantaged group, the health of the immigrant population might also improve. However, such speculations would need to be viewed in light of other research, such as that of Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde, which suggests that maintenance of the heritage language improves health (i.e. lowers youth suicide rates in indigenous populations).

Perhaps it is both – acquiring the language of the majority alongside maintenance of the language of one’s own identity (i.e. bilingualism) – which is most beneficial to an individual’s health.

Esther de Leeuw

Preserved Implicit Knowledge of a Forgotten Childhood Language

31 Dec

Bowers, J. S., Mattys, S. L., & Gage, S. H. (2009). Preserved Implicit Knowledge of a Forgotten Childhood Language. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1064–1069.

Parents who want their children to become highly proficient bilinguals might, unfortunately, view their children’s potential lack of what they consider to be perfect proficiency in one of the languages as a failure on their own account. For example, I’ve had conversations with parents who worry that they didn’t expose their children to enough of one of the languages, or weren’t strict enough in their expectations of which language should be spoken back to them by their children. Alternatively, the possibility alone that both their children’s languages might not become as proficient as fellow monolingual children’s languages might serve as reason to decide against supporting a bilingual upbringing.

To a large extent, this line of thought is grounded in the comparison of bilinguals with monolinguals (i.e. Is my bilingual child performing in both of his or her languages as two separate monolingual children would in those same languages?). Instead, there are many reasons as to why – instead of comparing bilinguals with monolinguals – bilingual children should be compared with bilingual children.  As such, children raised with two (or more) languages are not thought to be inadequate when compared to monolinguals indeed because the bilingual child does have an additional language (taken to an extreme, such a line of thought would actually consider monolingualism to be a form of “inadequacy” – if using this word at all – due to the complete lack of an additional language). This idea (that bilinguals serve as their own yardstick) is sometimes referred to as the “bilingual mindset”. So – it doesn’t really matter how proficient the bilingual child is in language A and language B because the bilingual child indeed has language A and language B, which, aside from the additional language, itself comes with many advantages (see previous blogs on e.g. dementia, bilingualism in Canada, and bilingualism in aboriginal communities).

But what if a child acquires only very little of a language in the early years (or potentially only hears this language), and thereafter contact with this early language is severed? This might be the case, for example, of children who are adopted by parents who speak a language other than the country where they were born; and of children who have caretakers who speak a language they do not speak, but, after a certain young age, the caretaker and family go their separate ways. Such early exposure might also occur in the case of divorce, if, for example, one parent spoke a particular language with the child early on, but then contact with that parent unfortunately stopped after separation. In my own case, I was exposed to Dutch through my Oma (grandmother) and Opa (grandfather) until the age of 4, because we lived very close to them, but when we moved to another town in Canada, far away from them, my exposure to Dutch dropped dramatically. Comparable situations to my own might occur in aboriginal communities where the grandparents speak with the grandchildren in the aboriginal language, but when the grandparents pass away, the grandchildren no longer receive input in that language because – for various reasons – the parents don’t speak with the children in the aboriginal language to the same extent that the grandparents did. Here, in terms of bilingualism, the question is whether this early exposure has lasting benefits in terms of acquiring that language later on. Or, put differently, do individuals who were exposed to a language in their early years have an advantage over those who were not exposed to this same language – when both groups attempt to acquire that language later on in adulthood?

Bowers, Mattys, and Gage (2009) investigated this very question. They examined whether native English speakers living in the United Kingdom, “who were exposed to either Hindi or Zulu as children due to their parents’ work abroad” (p. 1064) could learn to hear differences between sound contrasts which were unique to those languages faster than fellow native English speakers living in the United Kingdom who had never been exposed to those languages in early childhood. Crucially, they also wanted to know whether those who had been exposed to Hindi could acquire the sound contrasts of Hindi faster than those who had been exposed to Zulu, and vice versa. As such, they wanted to find out whether exposure to a particular language in early childhood aids (re?-) learning of that specific language in adulthood, rather than exposure to a particular language in early childhood aiding in the learning of any language in adulthood.

In their study, they tested all of the participants (the completely monolingual Brits, who had never been exposed to any language other than English; the Brits who were exposed to Hindi early on; and the Brits who were exposed to Zulu early on) to see whether they could hear sound contrasts of those languages. In this initial test, all of the participants scored equally poorly, i.e. they could all not hear the “foreign” sound contrasts. Thereafter, all the participants underwent sound contrast training, i.e. they were asked to determine whether the two sounds they heard were the same or different and they “were given feedback after each response (correct vs. incorrect)” (p.1066) over a series of training sessions which lasted approximately 30 days. Again, the idea was to determine whether or not the training which they underwent would help e.g. those who were exposed to Hindi early on to acquire the Hindi sound contrasts faster than the complete monolinguals and faster than those who were exposed to Zulu early on.

Their results showed that although the early exposure individuals “showed no preserved knowledge of their childhood language on initial testing, after practice, a subset of them (participants under the age of 40) regained sensitivity to a [sound] contrast from their childhood language. By contrast, when [this contrast] was unknown in childhood, no or minimal learning was observed after extensive practice for both young and old participants” (p. 1066).  They summarized that their findings “provide clear evidence of preserved implicit knowledge of a forgotten childhood language” (p. 1066); but, it appears, only if that language is re-acquired before the age of 40. After the age of 40, they suggest that disuse for such an extended period of time may indeed cause complete forgetting.

Accordingly, it seems that, even if children who are raised in an environment with more than one language do not acquire both languages completely and fully (in comparison to how monolingual children would have acquired those languages), their perhaps even very minimal acquisition (through e.g. simply early exposure to that language) puts them at an advantage in acquiring that same language later on in life, if they are so inclined to do so.

In other words, parents who decide to create an environment with more than one language for their child, might consider this itself to be a success, regardless of how “perfectly” the child learns the language. This is akin to viewing the glass half full, rather than half empty.

Even a little bit of water in the glass is something which has lasting benefits.

Esther de Leeuw

The effects of contact on native language pronunciation in an L2 migrant setting

31 Oct

De Leeuw, E., Schmid, M. S., & Mennen, I. (2010). The effects of contact on native language pronunciation in an L2 migrant setting. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13 (Special Issue 01), 33–40.

De Leeuw, E., Schmid, M., & Mennen, I. (2007). Global foreign accent in native German speech. In J. Trouvain and W. Barry (eds.) Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, 1605–1608.

This research addressed the question of whether it is possible for a native language (L1) to become foreign accented when a new language (L2) is acquired in adulthood.

More specifically, de Leeuw, Schmid, and Mennen (2010) recorded 57 German L1 speakers (who grew up in a monolingual German environment), and in late adolescence or adulthood moved abroad to either Canada or the Netherlands where they acquired respectively English or Dutch to a high level of proficiency. These bilinguals (the speakers) moved abroad at an average age of 27 and had resided in their country of choice for an average of 37 years. The speakers were recorded in their German L1 describing a silent Charlie Chaplin film they had just seen and, thereafter, the edited recordings were played to another group of Germans in Germany (the listeners), who had a limited knowledge of other languages. Only grammatically correct utterances were included in the recordings because the researchers wanted the listeners, who rated the bilinguals on how native-like they were in their German, to base their ratings solely on their actual pronunciation, and not on any potential grammatical oddities.

Strikingly, the results from the study revealed that the German listeners were significantly more likely to perceive a foreign accent in the German speech of the bilinguals in Canada and the Netherlands than in the speech of the control group (made up of German native speakers with a limited knowledge of other languages, who were recorded in Germany performing the same task as the bilinguals). Indeed, 14 of the German native speakers residing in either Canada or the Netherlands were clearly perceived to be non-native speakers of their native German, more-or-less across the board by all listeners.

In another analysis of these same bilinguals (de Leeuw, Schmid, & Mennen, 2007), results indicated that contact with the native German language had a more significant effect on predicting foreign accented native speech than age of arrival or length of residence in the recipient country. In particular, for both English and Dutch L2 groups, foreign accent was more likely to be perceived in the native speech of the bilinguals who had less contact with their native German language than in those who had more contact, although this effect was clearer in the bilinguals who moved abroad after 22 years of age.

In many ways, this research challenges our understanding of what native speech actually is. On the one hand, it seems that native speech is malleable across the lifespan – and not “anchored in the brain” with no potential for it to change once acquired up to adulthood. On the other hand, the results raise questions with regard to who defines a native speaker – is it the speaker of the language? Or is it the listener of the language? Or, are other parameters involved in determining native speech, and if so, what are they?

These are questions which I will attempt to answer in future blog entries.

Esther de Leeuw

Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates

1 Sep

Noels, K. (2005). Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 62(2), 285–312.

Most of the studies discussed so far involved large numbers of bilingual participants. Such investigations are interesting because they allow for generalisations: what does the majority of a large group do? However, in relation to bilingualism, such large-scale studies often don’t account for smaller sub-groups within the majority, or outliers, i.e. for the people who don’t perform according to the group norm. When accounting for outliers, one is essentially asking the does-everyone-do-that-(and-if-not,-why)? question(s). Sometimes, if there are enough outliers in a study, a researcher might be forced to question the generalisations he or she made about the group. For example, let’s say a researcher investigates adult population X and finds that most people (sub-population X1) in population X do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. The generalisation would be, quite simply, that most people do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. But – what if – in the same population X, population X2 were also found, and population X2 comprised highly motivated adult second language learners?  In that case, especially if population X2 were rather large, the researcher would (if he or she were a thorough researcher) want to ask why population X2 was especially motivated to learn second languages, as opposed to population X1. If the researcher were then able to find a factor which determined high motivation versus low motivation in adult second language acquisition, this researcher would have made a considerable step forward in research in bilingualism.

Kimberly Noels made such a step in her investigation into so-called German “heritage” language learners. Specifically, she investigated 99 students who were registered in German classes, differentiating between those who were of German decent (=heritage language learners) and those who were not of German decent (=non-heritage language learners). Although Noels examined German, globally, heritage language learners are a relatively common phenomenon. For example, whilst growing up in Anglophone Canada, I was exposed to Dutch because my father is Dutch, and my Oma and Opa were Dutch, but I can’t claim to have learned Dutch “perfectly” as a child; I was – and probably still am – a heritage language learner of Dutch as a result of less intensive exposure to the Dutch language resulting from my own cultural background. In her study, Noels found that heritage language learners of German were more motivated to learn German – than comparable non-heritage learners of German – for reasons related to their self-identify, and their conceptualisation of their cultural heritage. Interestingly, she didn’t just find that the heritage language learners were differently motivated to learn German, she also found that they were more successful at learning German than the non-heritage language learners.

In this way, her study feeds into a large body of research linking motivation to second language acquisition, some of which indicates that, even when a language is learned late in life, highly motivated learners are able to acquire native language proficiency in a second language. Practically, an implication of Noels’ research is that if you are thinking about learning a second language in adulthood, it might be worthwhile to focus on one with which you culturally identify due to your own heritage. In that case, you could be set to learn it quite well.

Esther de Leeuw

Learning through an Aboriginal Language: The Impact on Students’ English and Aboriginal Language Skills

31 Jul

Usborne, E., Peck, J., Smith, D.-L., & Taylor, D. M. (2012). Learning through an Aboriginal language: The impact on students’ English and Aboriginal language skills. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 34(4), 200–215.

In this post, I’m working with the general idea of the blog that learning an additional language (and hence, within a broad definition of bilingualism, moving towards bilingualism) is a positive experience. Note initially that there are some who might disagree with the idea that bilingualism as such is positive, and there are also fathomable instances in which learning an additional language might not be considered positive. That said, in working with the idea that learning additional languages is a positive occurrence, an immediately ensuing question is how those additional languages might best be learned.

Usborne, Peck, Smith and Taylor examined how Aboriginal languages in Canada can be learned most successfully by Aboriginal children and whether the learning of Aboriginal languages compromises the children’s knowledge of the mainstream language (i.e. English or French). This post therefore progresses from last month’s in which research was discussed which indicates that youth suicide rates drop in Canadian Aboriginal communities where Aboriginal language knowledge is prevalent. In addition to arguments based on the inherent detriment of language loss per se, there is thus ample, very pressing, reason for Canada to support the successful instruction of Aboriginal languages. However, as Usborne et al. discuss, challenging questions arise when the decision is made to include Aboriginal language instruction in Canadian school curriculum.

“During our own experiences living and working in Aboriginal communities, we have heard parents, community members, and educators debate the extent to which the Aboriginal language should be used in the classroom. Many Aboriginal families are committed to supporting attempts to have their children learn the heritage language, thereby promoting a strong Aboriginal identity. However, families are also committed to having their children master a mainstream language to allow their children to participate fully in modern, mainstream society. […] When there is a choice of enrolling one’s child in an immersion program in which children spend the majority of their school day learning in an Aboriginal language, parents often worry that their children’s abilities in the mainstream language will suffer.” (p. 203)

Accordingly, Usborne et al.’s research examines parents’ understandable concerns as to whether the mainstream language suffers when Aboriginal languages are acquired within an immersion context. Specifically, the researchers investigated the experiences of children (ranging in age from approximately four to seven) attending either 1. an Aboriginal language immersion programme or 2. an Aboriginal second language (L2) programme in a Mi’kmaq community in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The 84 children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme were “taught each of their core subjects (i.e., Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies) in Mi’kmaq throughout the school year”; whilst in contrast, the 134 children in the L2 programme were “taught their core subjects in English and took Mi’kmaq as a second language for a minimum of an hour a day” (p. 205). Importantly, the children all had limited knowledge of Mi’kmaq before entering the school (and they all went to the same school), so the assumption was that whatever they had learned or not learned would be a function of the different curricula, rather than their previous knowledge. The researchers then rigourously tested the children’s knowledge of Mi’kmaq and English during the school’s spring break using a battery of age appropriate language proficiency tests.

Expectedly, Usborne et al.’s results indicated that children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme learned significantly more Mi’kmaq than those in the Mi’kmaq as an L2 programme. Moreover, and this is perhaps more surprising, children in their first year of school in the immersion programme had significantly lower English scores compared to those in the L2 programme; by the second school year this difference was reduced, but immersion children still had significantly lower English scores than did children in the L2 programme. However, and here the results become encouraging, by the third school year, children in the immersion programme had caught up to the English scores of the children in the L2 programme. Usborne et al. summarise that “students in the Mi’kmaq immersion program are not only learning more Mi’kmaq than students in the Mi’kmaq as a second language program, but they are also performing just as well in English [by their 3rd school year]” (p. 209).

Therefore, in line with the call at the end of my previous post for the instruction of Aboriginal languages in Canada in order to counteract high youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities, it seems that precisely Aboriginal language immersion programmes are a successful mechanism to encourage bilingualism in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Indeed, I suggest that it is exactly these incentives which should be duly financially and ideologically supported throughout Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide

25 Jun

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

This blog post takes its impetus from Canadian bilingualism, as discussed in the cover story of this weekend’s edition of the Globe and Mail, ‘Is Bilingualism Still Relevant in Canada?’. The post progresses to recent research by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde, which examined the relationship between youth suicide rates and bilingualism in Aboriginal communities in Canada (the connection between the Globe’s article and Hallett et al.’s research will become clear as you continue to read).

According to the Globe and Mail’s cover story, many Canadians currently question whether the Official Languages Act, which established both French and English as official languages in 1969, should be reinterpreted to embrace not only French and English, but also many of the other immigrant languages in Canada. Indeed, with “more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006” (p. A10), and a total population of just under 33 million, the call for increased support in the instruction of immigrant languages is potentially highly valid in multilingual Canada. Furthermore, as has been discussed in some of my previous blogs, if bilingualism as such, has cognitive advantages, there is no need for the language combination of bilinguals in Canada to be restricted to French and English, unless the advantages of learning additional languages go beyond cognitive benefits.

Indeed, top reasons why readers of the Globe and Mail want to be bilingual are that they 1. value Canada’s history and heritage (identity reasons); 2. believe it’s intellectually enriching (cognitive reasons); 3. want to broaden their employment horizons (financial reasons); and 4. want to be global citizens (potentially both identity and financial reasons). Certainly, only the first reason (and perhaps the third if limiting oneself to Canadian borders) would constrain itself to a French-English combination. Therefore, to answer the Globe’s title question, yes, bilingualism is still relevant in Canada, just not solely in the form of French-English bilingualism, as Canadians have generally interpreted bilingualism until now.

However, and this is why I criticise the quality of the Globe’s cover story, the learning of Aboriginal languages is consistently avoided as a viable alternative in constructing Canada’s reinterpretation of bilingualism. Not once is even one of the over 60 recognised Aboriginal languages of Canada mentioned in the two page spread. This, in my view, is all the more disappointing if the outstanding research by Hallett et al. is brought into the discussion.

Very briefly, Hallett et al.’s study showed that youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language” (p.  392). Hallett et al.’s writing is so poignant that it is difficult to summarise for the purpose of this blog, especially considering the tragic nature of the exceedingly high suicide rates in aboriginal youth populations in Canada (compare over 95 suicides per 100000 in some of the Aboriginal communities with low rates of Aboriginal language acquisition which Hallett et al. looked at versus the national youth suicide average amongst 15-19 year olds of 11.5 per 100000 in 1996). As Hallett et al. discuss, according to the 2001 Canadian Census, overall, only 15% of the country’s Aboriginal children learn an indigenous mother tongue […]. Given such odds, and without special diligence, no more than two or three of Canada’s still existing indigenous languages are expected to survive beyond one or two more generations” (p. 394). In comparison to immigrant communities, the “perceived threats of indigenous language loss are often seen as even more real and more pressing. For such [Aboriginal] parents there is no ‘homeland’ where whole nation states continue to converse in their language of origin, and so no potential source of ‘new speakers’” (p. 393).

For Canadian Aboriginal communities, when their languages die, so too, one could interpret, do their cultures. Given Hallett et al.’s research, at the very least the instruction of Aboriginal languages should be discussed wholeheartedly in Canadian media, e.g. in the Globe and Mail, and increased support for the instruction of Aboriginal languages should commence as a matter of urgency. This, I believe, makes bilingualism highly relevant in Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia

31 May

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45(2), 459–464.

This entry discusses research in bilingualism which has had a lot of media presence.

Very briefly, Bialystok, Craik and Freedman examined whether bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia. Amazingly, their findings suggest that it is the case that bilingualism protects against the onset of the symptoms of dementia; however, as will be discussed, their results must not be generalized too much.

Initially, let’s look at how Bialystok and her colleagues designed their methodology. The researchers looked at 184 patient reports from the Memory Clinic at Baycrest in Toronto, Canada. The reports documented, amongst a lot of other factors, (1) the patients’ language backgrounds (e.g. whether they were bilingual or not) and (2) the age of onset of cognitive impairment (this age was determined in an interview during which a neurologist asked the patients and their caregivers at which age the symptoms were first noticed). Bialystok et al. then compared this age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals (49% of their population) with that of the bilinguals (51% of their population). Indeed, they found that there was a significant difference between the age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals and the bilinguals. Specifically, the bilinguals showed symptoms of dementia 4.1 years later than the monolinguals. All other factors, e.g. level of education, were considered to be equal, so it could be claimed that the “groups do not differ apart from their language abilities” (p. 462).

However, some interpretations of their results incorrectly suggest that learning a second language prevents dementia. This interpretation of their results is misleading for three reasons. Firstly, the bilinguals Bialystok et al. examined were people who “spent the majority of their lives, at least from early adulthood, regularly using at least 2 languages” (p. 460). It would therefore be incorrect to infer from their study that, for example,  attending an evening course to learn a foreign language in late adulthood could delay the onset of the symptoms of dementia (this might be the case, but their study didn’t examine such individuals, who, I emphasize here, could nevertheless arguably be considered to be bilinguals). Secondly, it would be incorrect to infer from their study that bilingualism prevents dementia. The bilinguals were just as likely to be diagnosed with dementia, it was simply the case that the diagnosis occurred on average later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals, i.e. the onset of the symptoms of dementia was delayed in the bilinguals. Finally, the researchers suggest that (a specific type of) bilingualism is a protection against the onset of the symptoms of dementia. It may very well be that the bilinguals in their study actually acquired dementia at, on average, the same age as the monolinguals; crucially, it can only be claimed from their study that in the bilinguals the symptoms surfaced later than in the monolinguals (or, even more critically, that these symptoms were noticed later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals).

However, if it is accepted that their findings indicate that (a certain type of) bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia (and it seems that this would be a valid conclusion), there are practical implications. For example, it appears that raising a child in a bilingual environment has benefits in old age in addition to those potentially evidenced earlier on. Moreover, maintaining bilingualism instead of monolingual assimilation could postpone the onset of the symptoms of dementia in rather large immigrant populations.

Overall, Bialystok et al.’s results are truly amazing, indicating that the effects of bilingualism extend far beyond the immediate benefits of knowing more than one language.

Esther de Leeuw