The University of Edinburgh has just proven that I was right!

Good news for teachers (and even better news for students) of foreign languages: a new longitudinal research, whose results were recently published in a journal of the American Neurological Association, reveals that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition and may delay the onset of dementia in older adults.  The participants, who live in the Indian city of Hyderabad, were given an intelligence test in 1947, when they were 11 years old, and retested sixty years later. Because Hyderabad is a cultural melting pot where much of the population speaks two or more languages, 262 out of 648 participants reported being able to communicate in at least one foreign language.

The study found that individuals who speak two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline, that is, people in the same age range and similar health history who could speak only one language. And, what may sound most surprising, it did not matter WHEN the participants in the study started studying the foreign language: the positive effects were present in those who acquired their second language early as well as late. The speakers didn’t even have to be fluent in the foreign language— just being able to express oneself was enough to benefit from the stimulation of the brain.

The author of the study, Dr. Thomas Bak of University of Edinburgh, has compared the learning of a foreign language to swimming, which is considered to be one of the most complete sports. In swimming we have to use many different muscles of the body, while in speaking a foreign language we have to use different sounds, choose the vocabulary from one language while suppressing the other, as well as be aware of different grammar, social and cultural norms. As a result, we stimulate many different parts of the brain.

Adult cognition has always been a topic that interests me, so I devoted one whole chapter to it in my book “Teacher Tools”. Throughout that chapter I try to point out that our brain is much more affected by misuse than aging: when it comes to brain power, it is a matter of “use it or lose it”.  And learning a foreign language is definitely a great and effective way of using it.

Well, now I have Dr. Thomas Bak and the whole University of Edinburgh to back me up on it.

P.S.: In order to write this article I read several others about the same study. If interested, you can read more about this topic in the following webpages:

And there is a whole lesson plan about it at

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Vivian Magalhães

Vivian Magalhães has an English teaching degree from UFRGS and a Master’s degree in Education from PUC-RS . She is the co-author of all the books in the series “Cem Aulas Sem Tédio”, as well as the author of “Teacher Tools” and the webmaster of In over thirty years of English teaching, she has taught children, teenagers and adults in many different settings. Nowadays, Vivian runs her own English school and also works as a freelance teacher trainer.

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