Learn another language and live longer

Samantha invited me along to the inaugural Albert Wolters Lecture at the Henley Business School (confusingly located on Reading Uni campus).

The first subject matter was “Bilingualism: Consequences for the mind and brain”, delivered by Professor Ellen Bialystok (Department of Psychology, York University in Canada). Any scientist with their own Wikipedia page is usually worthy of your attention.

Professor Bialystok has been awarded the inaugural Albert Walters Visiting Distinguished Professorship by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, in recognition of her world-class contribution to bilingualism and cognition.

The School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences enjoys a long standing international reputation for research, and the award is named after Professor Albert Wolters who was appointed as the first Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Reading in 1908.


As you’d expect from such a lecture, you needed a grounding in Psychology to get the most from the content but we held on as best we could.

The takeaway message was that being bilingual means your brain is wired differently and in the long run that can add several more years to your life before Alzheimer’s and dementia finally take their toll.

It was interesting to see that monolinguists and bilinguists behaved differently in tests – the former were able to perform quicker in vocabulary tests, having only one set of words to choose from, whilst the latter had to spend extra time preventing the wrong set being used. The flip-side of having to build up the brain’s ability to perform this filtering meant that bilinguists were better at other types of tests.

It was this extra wiring that is helping bilingual people retain their faculties longer even though their brain was showing the same amount of deterioration. When the deterioration affected the executive control centres, though, the benefit disappeared.

Conclusion – learn an extra language. Not just to stimulate the brain but to give you a better understanding of how other people feel and think.

((I did spend a while trying to work out why Ellen’s surname was so familiar. When I returned home, I searched online and found I had been thinking of Max Bialystock, one of the characters from Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’))


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