A few days ago, I was very fortunate to spend time with Ana Ines Ansaldo, who kindly visited me in Willsboro, on beautiful Lake Champlain, where I am working on my book, The Bilingual Revolution. Dr. Ansaldo is a professor at the School of Speech Therapy and Audiology at the University of Montreal where she heads the Language, Communication, and Aging Laboratory. She is also the Director of Teaching at the Geriatric Institute of Montreal. Her research focuses on the aging brain and language processing. She combines functional magnetic resonance imaging with tools from cognitive neuropsychology and communication sciences and disorders, so as to study neuroplasticity mechanisms supporting the recovery of language abilities, disrupted by stroke or dementia.
More importantly for me, she is interested in the impact of bilingualism on aging, in particular with regards to the cognitive and neural profiles of elderly bilinguals. By conducting research on the cognitive abilities of bilingual people, she has realized that people who spoke two languages throughout their lives perform better than monolinguals in tasks requiring mental flexibility. In everyday life, mental flexibility is manifested when one is required to change one’s plans or strategy to find a solution to a problem.
This ability is governed by the circuits in the frontal lobes of the brain, among other circuits. Although these circuits are particularly vulnerable to aging, bilingualism may be a protective factor against deterioration: When we speak two languages, we must control these circuits to function according to the context of communication. These circuits are high in demand throughout the life of a bilingual, and thus become strengthened and therefore more resistant to aging thanks to this constant exercise of shifting back and forth between languages. Of course, this research is still at an early stage and more analysis is needed. Still, I find this incredible discovery very promising and full of hope with regards to our appreciation for languages, particularly if learning a language becomes something that is good for our mental health and improves aging!
More information on Dr. Ansaldo.