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Study challenges claims being bilingual protects against age-related cognitive decline

21 September 2018

New research from UCL Institute of Education (IOE) challenges claims that being bilingual provides long-term cognitive advantages and may protect against cognitive deterioration later in life.

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In order to test this, the project team (Dr Roberto Filippi, Professor Peter Bright, Andriani Papageorgiou and Eva Periche-Tomas) assessed evidence for a bilingual advantage in older monolingual and bilingual residents matched on age, gender, and socioeconomic status.

As part of the study, participants completed a variety of tests which measured their non-verbal reasoning, working memory capacity, visuo-spatial memory, response inhibition, problem solving, and language proficiency. Structural MRI scans were also acquired as part of the research.

Analyses revealed comparable performance in both groups, with no significant differences on any task and the only trend, found for one problem solving exercise, indicated a monolingual advantage.

This study, which explored the effects of bilingualism in people within the 60-80 age range, is part of an ongoing project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which is focused on the neurocognitive impact of multi-language acquisition across the lifespan. 

Dr Roberto Filippi (UCL Institute of Education) said: “Science has already provided evidence that a healthy life-style, which includes regular physical exercise, good diet, social engagement, quality of sleep, stress management and mental stimulation, can protect our brain from the effects of ageing. More recently, some tantalising evidence has shown that lifelong use of multiple languages can also contribute to slowing down cognitive deterioration. Our findings do not seem to support this evidence". 

"Our team have tested more than 500 individuals from 7 to 80 years old using a wide range of cognitive tasks. We have also used modern neuroimaging techniques to investigate any possible difference in brain structure between monolingual and multilingual speakers. We are now analysing this vast amount of data with the hope to better understand if and how learning and using two or more languages affects our cognitive abilities". 

Professor Peter Bright (Anglia Ruskin University) said: “Our research supplements other recent studies questioning the viability of claims that the process of acquiring and maintaining a second language offers protection against normal age-related cognitive deterioration.  We encourage further fine-grained, well controlled exploration of possible biases and other explanatory variables that might help resolve this fiercely contested issue.” 

‘An investigation of the effects of multi-language acquisition across the lifespan’ will run from 2015 until 2020.

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations
Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 8515 
Email: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk

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