Bilingualism and cognition: Myths, mysteries and methodological nightmares

This post was contributed by Ariadni Loutrari, a NewRoute PhD Student in the Department of Applied Linguistics

Linguistics_50_finalBirkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics celebrated its 50th Anniversary by hosting a talk by Dr Thomas Bak on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and relevant methodological issues.

Dr Bak studied medicine in Germany and Switzerland, obtaining his medical doctorate with a thesis on acute aphasias at the University of Freiburg. Apart from his clinical experience, he has conducted research on embodied cognition and the relationship between language and movement in neurodegenerative diseases.

More recently, his research has been focusing on the influence of bilingualism on cognitive functions across the lifespan and in dementia. He has been the president of the World Federation of Neurology Research group on aphasia, dementia, and cognitive disorders since 2010. Dr Bak shed some light on critique on bilingualism research and gave us an insight into the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

Starting from a historical overview, our guest speaker referred to the fact that it was only after the ‘80s that more positive views on bilingualism were expressed. In the past, bilinguals were thought to have a disadvantage due to conflict and confusion between language brain areas and those linked to other cognitive functions.

The talk addressed a number of critiques against bilingualism research. For instance, lack of theoretical underpinnings has been considered one of the weaknesses of research on bilingualism. However, Dr Bak reminded us of the fact that scientific breakthroughs of the past with significant benefits for humanity lacked a theory.

Fierce criticism against bilingualism research also comes from the hypothesis that confounding variables can influence the interpretation of its cognitive effect. Immigration has been thought to be such a case, as cognitive benefits of bilingualism can be alternatively attributed to factors related to immigration.

The work of Dr Bak and his colleagues in places where bilingualism is not the result of immigration shows that this variable does not seem to be a confounding variable in bilingualism research.

When it comes to research on bilingualism and cognition the question inevitably arises as to whether bilingualism leads to better cognition or better cognition leads to bilingualism. Dr Bak touched on this reverse causality issue by presenting data from one of his recent studies in which he and his  colleagues managed to control for childhood intelligence.

An intelligence test that English native speakers living in and around Edinburgh took in 1947 was repeated in 2008-2010. Results pointed to a positive effect of bilingualism on later-life cognition. This conclusion had to do both with early bilinguals and those who acquired a second language in adulthood.

Dr Bak also referred to transfer-generalisation of knowledge emerging as a result of bilingualism, as bilingualism can have a positive effect, for example, on the auditory domain in general. That is, being bilingual can help an individual perform better on tasks that are not language-specific, leading to the conclusion that by learning a language, one learns more than they actually think they learn.

Being multilingual with teaching experience in seven languages, Dr Bak delivered an enlightening talk on the benefits of bilingualism, presenting robust research findings and methodological innovations that overcame hurdles of previous research in the field.

Find out more

Further reading:

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology, 75, 959-963.

Bak, T. H., Vega-Mendoza, M. & Sorace, A. (2014). Never too late? An advantage on tests of auditory attention extends to late bilinguals. Language Sciences, 5, 1–6

Mortimer, J. A., Alladi, S., Bak, T. H.Russ, T. C., Shailaja, M. & Duggirala, V.  (2014).Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration statusNeurology, 82, 1938–1944.


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