York Research Chair links adaptations of bilingualism to brain’s performance

World-leading bilingualism expert sifts through all existing research and concludes that multiple languages involve adaptations that are apparent in cognitive performance.

Ellen Bialystok

York University Professors are undertaking ground-breaking research the impact of which is felt on a global stage. Psychology Professor Ellen Bialystok in the Faculty of Health is a shining example of this. An Officer of the Order of Canada, a Tier 1 York Research Chair (YRC)  ̶  the Walter Gordon York Research Chair in Lifespan Cognitive Development -̶  and Distinguished Research Professor, she examines the effects of experience on cognitive function and brain organization across the lifespan, with a focus on bilingualism.

She recently authored a paper in Psychology Bulletin, with funding from the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the NIH National Institute on Aging. It is a comprehensive review of the research showing modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism.

She concluded that lifelong bilingualism involves adaptations that are linked to the brain’s performance.

“If experience can shape brain structure and cognitive ability, then bilingualism is a prime candidate for such effects,” Bialystok explains. “Bilingualism is an experience that has the potential to modify brain and cognitive systems more generally, much as enriched cages do for rats and socioeconomic status does for young children,” she adds.

Massive review of research considers studies as far back as mid-1980s

More than half of the world’s population is multilingual, most researchers agree. They also believe that there’s a connection between bilingualism and cognitive and brain processes. This makes sense; it seems logical that because language is so wholly inter meshed with the human experience and the connections between linguistic and non-linguistic processing. But Bialystok sought to dig deeper and investigate these connections, to find the modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism. To do this, she turned to existing literature, from the mid-1980s to present day (2017).

Her review of the literature describes, in considerable depth, studies investigating the relation between bilingualism and cognition in infants and children, younger and older adults, and patients, using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods. This paper illustrates the very best in literature reviews, as Bialystok succinctly and methodically presents decades of research in this area – a huge portion of which is her own work.

 Bialystok’s literature review sought to find the modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism

Bialystok’s literature review sought to find the modifications of brain and cognitive systems that could be attributed to bilingualism

Bialystok concludes that bilingual minds adapt to their unique situation and that the adaptation has consequences for mind and brain. “Beginning in infancy, the attention system is adapted to the particular demands of a bilingual environment, and these adaptations become apparent in cognitive performance across the life span,” she explains. “Attention begins to develop at birth and evolves throughout childhood so it is well positioned to provide the basis for a set of findings that extend across the entire life span,” she adds.

Along the way, she underscores and unpacks some important mechanisms, such as lifelong neuroplasticity, defined as the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. In bilingualism, this plays a vital role, allowing bilingualism to influence performance. Other key factors connecting bilingualism to performance are the executive function, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, necessary for cognitive control; and an enhanced attention system, enabling bilinguals to selectively attend to relevant stimuli (something that evokes a specific reaction) and exclude irrelevant stimuli.

Beginning in infancy, the attention system is adapted to the particular demands of a bilingual environment

Beginning in infancy, the attention system is adapted to the particular demands of a bilingual environment

Conclusions affirm suspicion that bilingualism changes the way that language processing works

In many ways, this research is a confirmation of what Bialystok had suspected. “Experience has the power to modify cognitive and brain systems, and of all the experiences in which we engage, the way we use language must be among the most intense and the most profound. It is perhaps not surprising that bilingualism changes the way language processing is carried out,” she concludes.

However, Bialystok presses for more research and warns against simplistic interpretations of this multifaceted work. “Nothing is as complex as the human mind, and investigations of the myriad factors that shape human cognition cannot be reduced to single-factor models that erase the inherent complexity of the question as an expedient to arrive at a simple answer,” she explains.

The article, “The Bilingual Adaptation: How minds accommodate experience,” was published in Psychology Bulletin (2017). For more information on Bialystok, visit her faculty page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, watch the York Research Impact Story, see the infographic poster or visit the YouTube playlist.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca