Bilingualism and Memory
As more and more of the world becomes multilingual, researchers are examining how knowing more than one language affects the brain. One aspect of this neurological research seeks to understand how being bilingual relates to one’s memory. This has been evaluated in both the short term relationship and the lifelong relationship between bilingualism and memory. For the short term, researchers are looking into how being bilingual affects your executive control among other measures. In the case of the long term benefits, some researchers are looking into how being bilingual relates to Azheimer’s disease.
One example of research regarding executive control and other factors is a study conducted by Wodniecka, Craik, Luo and Bialystok (2009). The researchers aimed to examine the effect of bilingualism on memory performance. Specifically, Wodniecka et al.(2009) examined monolinguals and bilinguals and tracked their recollection in verbal and nonverbal tasks. The study found that the two groups differed significantly on the tasks revealing that the bilinguals displayed an advantage in executive control. Additionally, researchers found that the older bilingual adults they studied displayed this advantage, especially on non-verbal tasks. The cause of this could be the result of having to shift one’s language, what they use to understand and communicate with the world around them, as this utilizes a lot of brain power!
Research that highlights the long term benefits of being bilingual was conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium. For their study, the researchers evaluated 134 people diagnosed with “probable Alzheimer’s disease (AD)” (Woumans et al., 2014). Of the patients, 69 were monolinguals and 65 were bilinguals. In the study, the participants were all evaluated on when they experienced “clinical AD manifestation” as well as when they received the clinical AD diagnosis. They found that the bilingual or multilingual participants showed a delay of at least four years in both the manifestation and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Some researchers, “suggest that switching between two languages requires a specific area of the brain that, when exercised, can delay dementia” (Woumans et al., 2014). This highlights a huge benefit of being bilingual!
As some researchers are looking into how being bilingual relates to Azheimer’s disease and others into how being bilingual affects your executive control among other measures, the benefits of bilingualism are becoming ever more apparent. In the case of memory, it seems bilinguals may have an advantage over monolinguals because of their ability to exercise greater executive control. This could be the result of switching between languages, a skill and process that could lead to a more developed mental map. This is just one possibility for why our bilingual friends have a leg up. In all likelihood, researchers will continue to study this population as we see our globalized society leading to more and more multilinguals.
Sauer, A. (2014). Bilingualism May Delay Alzheimer’s by More than 4 Years. Retrieved from
Wodniecka, Z., Craic, F. I., Luo, L., & Bialystok, E. (2009). Does bilingualism help memory?
Competing effects of verbal ability and executive control. International Journal of
Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13(5), 575-595.
Woumans, E., Santens, P., Sieben, A., Versijpt, J., Stevens, M., & Duyck, W. (2014).