29.2800, Review: Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Psycholinguistics: Bialystok, Sullivan (2017)

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Subject: 29.2800, Review: Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Psycholinguistics: Bialystok, Sullivan (2017)

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Date: Thu, 05 Jul 2018 15:18:48
From: Laura Dubcovsky [lauradubcovsky at gmail.com]
Subject: Growing Old with Two Languages

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/28/28-4222.html

EDITOR: Ellen  Bialystok
EDITOR: Margot D.  Sullivan
TITLE: Growing Old with Two Languages
SUBTITLE: Effects of Bilingualism on Cognitive Aging
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Bilingualism 53
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Laura Dubcovsky, University of California, Davis

Bialystok, E. and M. Sullivan, Eds. (2017). Growing Old with Two Languages,
Effects of bilingualism on cognitive aging. Studies in bilingualism, John


The book, “Growing Old with Two Languages. Effects of bilingualism on
cognitive aging,” edited by Ellen Bialystok and Margot Sullivan, includes
thirteen chapters that illuminate the language/cognition intersection, from
theoretical and practical perspectives. The collected articles address an
audience knowledgeable of relevant principles and methodologies in second
language acquisition and its potential impact on aging and cognition. The
first chapter, “The importance of bilingualism for the aging brain: Current
evidence and future research directions,” serves as an introduction to the
book. The editors set the tone, purposes and overarching topics that will
connect the following chapters. They frontload key concepts, such as cognitive
control mechanisms, interference and neuroplasticity, later developed
throughout the chapters.  Sullivan and Bialystok emphasize that the book will
contribute to fill an age gap in the literature, as most studies on
bilingualism address children and young adults only, and will highlight
bilingualism as a potential lens for understanding the cognitive development
of an increasingly aging population. 

In Chapter 2 Fergus J. M. Craik considers, “Cognitive problems in older
adults: Can bilingualism help?”  He summarizes advantages and disadvantages of
bilingualism on cognitive functions. On the one hand, results show that
bilinguals outperform monolinguals on nonverbal tasks, a fact that is
generally explained by their increased attention to selecting the appropriate
language and applying inhibitory mechanisms to multiple stimuli. On the other
hand, monolinguals excel bilinguals in measures of verbal ability, including
larger vocabulary size, more frequency words and higher verbal fluency scores.
In the second part Craik compares long-lasting cognitive abilities to those
that decline with age. The former constitute crystallized processes,
represented by factual knowledge, procedural abilities and (almost) automated
abilities, while the latter represent novel mental processes or new
combinations of demands and self-initiated processes.  Besides the natural
cognitive decrease that accompanies the aging process, regardless of the
language dominance, it seems that old bilinguals maintain more flexible mental
circuits than their peer monolinguals. However, Craik departs from any
categorical conclusions, and urges researchers to situate the construct of
bilingualism in specific contexts. For example, bilingual users behave
differently in multilingual societies that require constant language shifts
than in diglossic domains, which function with separate languages. Likewise,
different types of balanced/ unbalanced bilinguals show a huge range of
language proficiency and experience, and the quality of task demands in each
circumstance accounts for different behavior. The chapter closes with a
request to further interdisciplinary studies, as Craik notices that
bilingualism and cognition can inform each other and advance the knowledge of
the field, especially among aging populations. 

Chapter 3, “How aging and bilingualism influence language processing:
Theoretical and neural models” by Eleonora Rossi and Michele Diaz, is divided
in three sections. First the authors summarize models of language processing
in healthy aging people that show cognitive, behavioral and neural declines.
For example, old monolinguals and bilinguals both exhibit slower speed in
reaction time, semantic redundancies and compensatory uses and repetitions. In
the second section Rossi and Diaz explain two typical language processes among
bilinguals:  (1) the co-activation of the two languages, which seems pervasive
especially in comprehension and production processes; and (2) asymmetric
switches from one language into the other It seems that the dominant first
language (L1)  might inhibit the production of the second language (L2), and
therefore translation from L2 to L1 seems more effortful. In the third section
Rossi and Diaz suggest topics for further studies on older bilinguals, such as
first language attrition, changes produced beyond the age of acquisition, and
the cognitive training of bilingual tools; they also encourage
interdisciplinary work between cognitive psychologists and linguists to better
explain the interaction between executive control functions and healthy aging
populations that speak two (or more) languages.

In Chapter 4 Eve Higby and Loraine Obler focus on “Length of residence: Does
it make a difference in older bilinguals?” The authors draw on the research of
aging to examine its cognitive impact under different circumstances. They
expose how early age of onset (AO) to the immersion in and exposure to the
second language (L2) has been largely favored by the critical period
hypothesis (Lenneberg, 1967).  They also explain how the length of residence
(LOR) in the L2 environment is usually treated as a confounding variable
between age and exposure, since older people tend to receive a larger amount
of L2.  Higby and Obler present a comprehensive table with studies that
investigate the relation between LOR and L2 performance (Table 1, pp. 62-66),
showing no clear cutoff for years of residence and aging. Therefore the
authors propose to consider the age at the time of testing, as an innovative
variable that may assess particular L2 comprehension/ production processes, as
in pronunciation, lexical retrieval, grammatical use, and speech perception
performances. In spite of refining AO, LOR and testing age, Higby and Obler
acknowledge that the age impact may be cancelled out, and even overridden by
cognitive processes, as they are influenced by a constellation of individual
and social variables, from learners’ differences to denser networking, and
from length of the exposure to quality of demand. 

The following four chapters are devoted to empirical studies on cognitive
aging.  Chapter 5, “Individual differences in cognitive control advantages of
elderly late Dutch-English bilinguals,” by Merel Keijzer and Monika Schmid,
combines quantitative and qualitative instruments to examine verbal and
nonverbal advantages. The authors include measurable cognitive (reading and
backward digit spans)and executive (modified Wisconsin card sorting test,
Simon and Stroop) tasks, (receptive and productive ) vocabulary tests, and
category and letter verbal fluency tasks. They also incorporate qualitative
measures through semi-structured interviews and grammaticality judgments. 
Results show similarities to previous studies, in which monolinguals
outperform bilinguals in verbal tasks (vocabulary size and speed of retrieving
lexical information), while bilinguals outperform their peers in higher levels
of the inhibitory mechanisms and more plasticity in conflict resolution. 
However, the major contribution of the study is the identification of
code-switching habits as a better and more important predictor of the
bilinguals’ advantages. Keijzer and Schmid emphasize that the degrees of
code-switching behavior prevail over other more frequently used variables,
such as age of acquisition, language performance, active lifestyle and
educational background. As stated in the “adaptive control hypothesis” (Green
& Abutalebi, 2013), the environmental code switching not only accounts for
differences among individuals (linguistic abilities and proficiency levels)
and groups  (migrant experiences, L2 learners), but also for looser or denser
contexts that require higher activation of control levels. 

In Chapter 6 Iva Ivanova, Mayra Murillo, Rosa Montoya and Tamar Gollan ask,
“Does bilingual language control decline in older age?”  The authors use
verbal (letter and semantic fluency) and nonverbal (flanker and digit span)
tasks to measure time of retrieval, errors within the language and
wrong-language intrusion, to assess whether inhibitory mechanisms are impaired
or preserved in older bilinguals. As in previous chapters, results show
similar declines of language control and some non-linguistic tasks with aging
(slower speed, less accurate responses, and less efficiency to modulate
degrees of inhibition). The study also indicates changes (more or less
language activation) in the control mechanisms according to the nature of the
tasks’ (high/ reduced) demands. Above all, Ivanova and her colleagues mainly
contribute with the finding of some independence between language control and 
domain-general executive control.  The authors show that older bilinguals, who
were allowed to code-switch more freely during the semi-structured interview,
have the same language cost as younger bilinguals. Likewise in the naming
language task they respond even faster than younger bilinguals, probably
benefitting from the semantic priming between first and second languages. They
conclude that linguistic and cognitive mechanisms do not seem to follow
exactly the same decline trajectory. This potential dissociation for certain
activities offers promising directions in the studies of aging cognition and

In Chapter 7 Henrike Blumenfeld, Scott Schroeder, Susan Bobb, Max Freeman and
Viorica Marian examine,  “Auditory word recognition across the lifespan: Links
between linguistic and nonlinguistic inhibitory control in bilinguals and
monolinguals.”  The study shows that older bilinguals outperform monolinguals
in the ability to resolve linguistic ambiguities and recruit nonlinguistic
cognitive control in the auditory context. Verbal results indicate more
prominent age-related effects of the residual activation and inhibition within
monolinguals, while younger and older bilinguals show more consistent target
language activation and linguistic competition resolution during their
lifespan.  In contrast, nonverbal inhibitory control is more pronounced among
bilinguals, who seem to adapt more rapidly to task demands and conflict
monitoring than monolinguals. It is likely that the active use of two
languages enable bilinguals to preserve their abilities to identify relevant
stimuli and increase susceptibility to overcome ambiguities.

Chapter 8 presents the study, “Executive control processes in verbal and
nonverbal working memory: The role of aging and bilingualism” by Margot
Sullivan, Yolanda Prescott, Devora Goldberg and Ellen Bialystok. The authors
focus on the impact of the working memory (WM), through in verbal (star
counting task) and nonverbal (flanker and recent probe memory) tasks. Results
align with the advantages previously mentioned, both for monolinguals, who
excel in verbal tasks (vocabulary, lexical access and retrieval in production
tasks), and for bilinguals, who outperform in giving nonverbal faster
responses in the executive control (EC) tasks. Sullivan and her colleagues
find a strong impact of proactive interference on bilinguals’ WM, which may
enable them to resolve conflict more rapidly and engage in accurate
recollection with smaller costs than monolinguals. They claim that a broader
bilingual WM definition is required, so that it considers not only relevant
factors of bilingual experience, pre-existing abilities, and task demands, but
above all the beneficial or detrimental effect of interferences in EC
mechanisms, in which WM is part. This interaction will probably bring more
accurate understanding of   the complex interaction between cognitive aging
and bilingualism.

The following chapters focus on the impact of bilingualism on older
populations with Alzheimer’s (AD) and other mental diseases.  Chapter 9,
“Bilingualism, cognitive reserve and Alzheimer’s disease: A review of
findings” by Brian Gold, addresses the notion of cognitive reserve (CR) as a
key mechanism “that allows for coping with neuropathology and maintaining
cognitive functions” (p. 185). The author highlights innovative studies that
indicate the possibility that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s
disease (AD) by 4-5 years, compared to monolinguals’ onset (Bialystok, Craik &
Freedman, 2007). Likewise behavioral and neuroimaging studies show less
cognitive impairment and more brain damage tolerance among older bilinguals
than monolinguals. Gold claims that the bilingual CR may protect against AD,
either directly by preserving  memory circuits affected in early-stage AD, or
indirectly, by enhancing other neural systems in the bilingual executive
control systems. The review also confirms previous observations on the steeper
age-related declines within monolinguals than bilinguals, as well as the
existence of confounding factors that affect executive control, of which the
bilingual CR is part.  Finally the author offers some directions toward (1)
more comprehensive studies, which incorporate refined linguistic
variables--such as degree of usage, proficiency levels, and competition
between languages--as well as (2) more longitudinal studies that may employ
larger data-- increased number of participants,  and varied types of measures
and methods of analysis-to the cognitive aging field, strengthening
understanding of the CR impact on aging bilinguals with AD (Anderson et al.,

 In Chapter 10, Jessica Ljungberg, Patrik Hansson, Rolf Adolfsson, and
Lars-Göran Nilsson conduct an empirical study on, “The effect of language
skills on dementia in a Swedish longitudinal cohort.” The authors use a large
scale data base on memory, health, and aging (www.betula.su.se)  to examine
whether cognitively intact bilinguals have a reduced risk of developing
dementia within a time-period of 10 years.  The fact that their study does not
corroborate previous results on delayed onset of dementia in bilinguals (Craik
et al., 2010), is partly explained by the divergent nature of the selected
participants. The Swedish learners use the second language (L2) sporadically
(0-2 hours per day) and most have learned L2 at school (9 years old and
above). Ljungberg and her colleagues claim that individual factors (age,
levels of education, usage and proficiency level, etc.), as well as social
factors (multilingual societies, immigration status, cultural circumstances,
etc.) influence the multidimensional construct of bilingualism (Luk &
Bialystok, 2013).  Consequently, it is a web of conglomerate variables that
jointly builds on the bilingual cognitive reserve, in order to prevent a
decline in older age. 

 Chapter 11 titled, “Bilingualism, cognitive reserve, aging and dementia: What
is the new ground to cover?” by Alexandre Chauvin, Hilary Duncan and Natalie
Phillips, focuses on the impact of bilingual skills on the memory functioning
of healthy aging populations and those with mental diseases. First the authors
make a distinction between cognitive reserve (CR) and brain reserve, which
addresses functional and structural systems, respectively.  Although the
systems are defined as distinctive, there are also combinations within and
between mechanisms, operating independently or in association, for example, to
lead to more flexible memory networks at the functional level, or increase the
grey matter at the structural level.  Then Chauvin and his colleagues review
studies about aging populations with dementia. Although the literature review
fails to show that bilingualism is a  categorical protection to delaying the
onset of Alzheimer’s disease, studies agree that speaking more than one
language, in conjunction with other variables (task demands, participants’
quality, etc.), may influence memory functions and/or the brain networks that
support them.  Finally the authors discuss theoretical and practical
implications, including the proposal of large scale studies as well as more
interdisciplinary dialogue between linguists and neuroscientists, so that they
could better explain the role of bilingualism in the brains of patients who
are healthy, at risk, and afflicted with dementia.

In Chapter 12, Thomas Bak presents a discussion article about, “The impact of
bilingualism on cognitive ageing and dementia: Finding a path through a forest
of confounding variables.”  In his discussion the author highlights the broad
variety of immigration status, at individual and population levels. Immigrants
differ enormously not only from the host population, but also among
themselves. The fluid waves within and between countries and continents and
even within the same country, cause different language associations than the
predicted canonical patterns. In current movable societies, while host
populations are not exclusively monolingual as expected, migrants may
fluctuate between monolingual and bilingual, according to degrees of
acceptance, identity issues, openness at the new location, etc.  Bak also
analyzes the role of education as a relevant confounding variable that needs
to be explained in context. His example, drawn fromIndia, shows how a large
mass of illiterate bilinguals outperform monolinguals, a fact contrary to the
predicted success of highly educated people in western societies.  Then the
author invites researchers to revise foundational notions of the cognitive/
bilingual relationship, avoiding misleading explanations based on reverse
causality. He observes that aging bilinguals might have different baseline
characteristics from those who remain monolingual. In his words, “it might not
be bilingualism that leads to later-life cognitive differences; it could be
that original cognitive differences lead to bilingualism” (p. 251).  The
chapter concludes by reiterating the potential of the interdisciplinary work
between neuro-medicine and linguistics to illuminate unknown areas that affect
the raising aging population.

Chapter 13, “History-inspired reflections on the bilingual advantages
hypothesis,” by Debra Titone, Jason Gullifer, Sivaniya Subramaniapillai,
Natasha Rajah and Shari Baum is an editorial piece. In the first section the
authors revise the nature and characteristics of the bilingual advantages
hypothesis within the neurocognitive system, and pinpoint many of the
constructs elaborated throughout the book (cognitive reserve, working memory,
inhibitory mechanisms, and conflict monitoring, etc.). Then Titone and her
colleagues explore some historical forces which influence science in general,
and neuroscience in particular and which help to explain why studies show an
almost exclusive interest in the domain-general executive control, while they
overlook language control systems, in particular the potential benefits of
bilingualism. The authors also address the ongoing controversy on bilingual
advantages and propose to consider global cognitive advantages, such as mental
flexibility, metalinguistic awareness, and neuroplasticity. They also suggest
the design of new models and more sophisticated methods of analysis to respond
to current problems in the fields of bilingualism and neuro-cognition.  They
urge change of the misleading question, “Are bilinguals advantaged over
monolinguals?” (p. 286) into another more nuanced and fruitful, such as, “How
are variations in language experience, bilingual or otherwise, interactively
related to different kinds of executive control or other cognitive
capacities?”  (p. 286).


The book offers a collection of updated articles on the effects of
bilingualism on current aging population.  The editors start with a clear
introduction, explaining the framework, content and layout of the book
(chapter 1).  Within the theoretical chapters, some summarize generalities
(chapters 2, 3) while others particular topics (Chapter 4), and a few take
more critical positions (chapters 12 and 13). The empirical chapters present
studies on specific populations (Chapters 5 and 10), modality (chapter 7) and
cognitive mechanisms (chapters 6 and 8), mostly in healthy aging population.
The book also devotes theoretical and empirical chapters to Alzheimer’s and
other mental diseases (Chapters 9-12). Although most articles assume a
specialized audience that manages bilingual issues in older populations,
particularly from a cognitive perspective, it is suggested that a slight
change in the layout would have opened up the book to a broader range of
readers. For example, the clear definitions of recurrent notions (Chapter 12)
and the newspapers’ references cited in the editorial piece (Chapter 13) could
have been presented earlier in the book, facilitating the comprehension of
denser explanations and more detailed studies.  The other limitation, already
acknowledged in the book, is the small –scale data reported in the literature
review and empirical studies. As the editors urge scholars, more longitudinal
and larger-scale studies should be implemented in the field.  Above all the
book is very well supported by foundational constructs and common beliefs in
the interdisciplinary effort that contributes to the field of aging cognition
and bilingualism, among healthy populations and mental patients.


Anderson, G., Buckle, R., Favrin, G., Friend, S., Geshwind, D., Hu, H., & al.
(2015). Big data approaches to dementia: Opportunities and challenges. In G.
Anderson & J. Oderkirk (Eds.), “Dementia research and care: Can big data
help?” (pp. 39-37). Paris: OECD Publishing.

Bialystock, E., Craik, F., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection
against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45(2), 459–464. 

Craik, F., Bialystock, E., & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of
Alzheimer disease-Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75,

Green, D., & Abutalebi, J. (2013). Language control in bilinguals: The
adaptive control hypothesis. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 515-530. 

Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of language. New York, NY: Wiley
& Sons

Luk, G., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Bilingualism is not a categorical variable:
Interaction between language proficiency and usage. Journal of Cognitive
Psychology, 25, 605-621.


Laura Dubcovsky is a retired lecturer and supervisor from the Teacher
Education Program in the School of Education at the University of California,
Davis. With a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Spanish linguistics /with
special emphasis on second language acquisition, her interests tap topics of
language and bilingual education. She is currently dedicated to the
preparation of in service bilingual Spanish/English teachers, especially on
the use of Spanish for educational purposes. She also volunteers as
interpreter in parent/teachers conferences at schools and translates programs
and flyers for the Crocker Art Museum, bilingual school programs and STEAC.
She also collaborates as a reviewer with the Linguistic list serve and
bilingual associations. For more than ten years she has taught a pre-service
bilingual teachers’ course that addresses communicative and academic traits of
Spanish, needed in a bilingual classroom She published “Functions of the verb
decir (‘to say’) in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual
children in Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter,
“Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües” in ¿Cómo
aprendemos y cómo enseñamos la narración oral? (2015). Rosario, Homo
Sapiens:127- 133.


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