The Consequences of Bilingualism for Cognitive and Neural Function

Thursday, August 18, 2016, 1:30 – 3:00 pm, Logan Hall

Chair: Jonathan Peelle, Washington University in St. Louis

Ellen Bialystok

Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University and Associate Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care

Ellen Bialystok is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon York Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University. She is also an Associate Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Her research uses both behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine the effect of experience on cognitive processes across the lifespan, with most attention on the effect of bilingualism. Participants in these studies include children, younger and older adults, and patients, in an attempt to identify the mechanism by which experience modifies cognitive systems. She has published extensively in the form of books, scientific articles, and book chapters. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Society for Experimental Psychology, American Psychological Society, and other professional organizations. Among her awards are the Canadian Society for Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science Hebb Award (2011), Killam Prize for the Social Sciences (2010), York University President’s Research Award of Merit (2009), Donald T. Stuss Award for Research Excellence at the Baycrest Geriatric Centre (2005), Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research (2002), Killam Research Fellowship (2001), and the Walter Gordon Research Fellowship (1999). In 2016, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her contributions to our understanding bilingualism and for opening up new avenues of research in her field.

Talk Summary

There is now substantial evidence supporting the notion of lifelong neuroplasticity from intense experience, a situation that can lead to “cognitive reserve” in older age.  The present proposal is that bilingualism is one such experience. Therefore, along with factors like formal education, aerobic exercise, and musical training, bilingualism has systematic consequences for both cognitive function and brain systems that benefit some aspects of cognitive performance and protect against cognitive decline in older age. The proposed mechanism by which these modifications occur will be explained, along with a summary of the evidence showing changes in cognitive and brain function across the lifespan that can be attributed to bilingualism. Following this, specific areas of the research that may appear to be inconsistent with this overall interpretation will be examined in more detail.  The conclusion is that the body of evidence obtained from these studies of bilingualism and the underlying mechanism proposed to be responsible are consistent with the notion of lifelong neuroplasticity from bilingualism that lead to measurable changes in cognitive and brain function.

Manuel Carreiras

Scientific Director of the BCBL (Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language), Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

Foto M.Carreiras-Small
Manuel Carreiras is the Scientific Director of the BCBL (Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain) that has been recently awarded the “Severo Ochoa” label of excellence. He is also IKERBASQUE research professor, Honorary Professor of the UCL, and visiting professor of the UPV/EHU. His research focuses on reading, bilingualism and second language learning. He is the editor in chief of Frontiers in Language Sciences, and associated editor of Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience. He has published more than 200 papers in high impact journals in the field. His research has been funded by different research agencies. He was the coordinator of the Consolider-Ingenio2010 grant entitled COEDUCA, recipient of the ERC advanced grant entitled Bi-Literacy, recipient of the Euskadi Research Prize 2015, and others.

Talk Summary

Bilingualism and second language learning are interesting cases for understanding (1) whether effects of long term training generalize to other cognitive domains, and (2) brain plasticity. I will argue that, as documented in other cognitive domains, transfer of training effects are minimal. In particular, I will argue that bilinguals do not exhibit enhanced executive control as compared to monolinguals in several behavioral tasks when using tight controls and large samples. The so called “bilingual advantage” is non-existent or may stem from poorly matched samples or other uncontrolled factors. On the other hand, I will argue that the learning and daily use of two languages modulates structural and functional brain connectivity. However, the specific neural consequences of dealing with two languages are still a matter of debate since current findings are quite variable. In any case, it is important to note that differences between bilinguals and monolinguals in structural and functional brain connectivity cannot be used to argue against or in favor of the so called “bilingual advantage”.