Others say the bigger benefit is seen in relationships with others

A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience is touting bilingualism as one more way to keep the brain sharp.

The study pitted 40 bilinguals against 40 people who only spoke one language. Each participant had to switch between tasks of focusing on colour and then on shape as their brain was scanned.

Montreal-born neuroscientist Brian Gold led the research project from the University of Kentucky.

There was no obvious difference in the younger participants’ performance. But the results showed that the older people who were fluent in two languages expended less energy to complete the task than monolinguals.

The efficiency that bilingual brains displayed is linked to a more youthful brain, says the study.

But Susanne Caroll, a psycho-linguist at the University of Calgary, says that it’s important to remember that these effects could be limited to those who use both languages on a daily basis.

“The kinds of populations that have shown this effect, are for example, immigrants who live in Canada” because they speak their mother tongue at home and a different language in the community, she says.

According to Statistics Canada, around 6.6 million people in Canada speak a language other than English or French at home, as of 2011. That’s about 20 per cent of the Canadian population. Of that total, 2,145,000 citizens solely use a non-official language at home.

The study findings are most likely to be apply to people like Calgarian Egide Nzojibwami. Originally from the African country of Berundi, his mother tongue is Kerundi. He can also speak English and French after living in both Belgium and Canada. Nzojibwami uses all three languages on a daily basis: Kerundi with his wife, French with his kids and English at work.

He says he hasn’t noticed any positive impact on his mind thanks to his multi-language fluency.

But he says the languages have been a benefit to him in his job. Recently, he was able to use his French skills while working on a business project with the country of Chad, where French is an official language.

Another positive result is his ability to stay in touch with people throughout the world.

Nzojibwami says, “For me it’s a big benefit to be able to speak those languages, so I can connect with all the people because I have lived on three continents.”

Both Egide’s wife Beatrice and son Ben agree that the most visible benefits are in their relationships.

Caroll says that these interpersonal bonuses have always been claimed of multi-language fluency.

“It opens up new worlds to you,” she says.

Carroll suggests that while Gold’s study provides scientific evidence of brain-related benefits, the study is limited as it only considers language acquisition from a neurological perspective.

djolie@cjournal.ca