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Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain
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Ellen Bialystok is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University. She is also an Associate Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Her research uses behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine the effect of experience on cognitive processes across the lifespan. The primary experience studied is bilingualism. The goal is to understand neuroplasticity and the mechanism by which experience modifies cognitive systems. She has published extensively in the form of books, scientific articles, and book chapters. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Society for Experimental Psychology, American Psychological Society, and other professional organizations. Among her awards are the Canadian Society for Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science Hebb Award (2011), Killam Prize for the Social Sciences (2010), York University President’s Research Award of Merit (2009), Donald T. Stuss Award for Research Excellence at the Baycrest Geriatric Centre (2005), Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research (2002), Killam Research Fellowship (2001), and the Walter Gordon Research Fellowship (1999). In 2016, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2017 she was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Oslo for her contributions to research.


All our experiences contribute to the way our minds and brains develop, but intense experiences have a special role in shaping our cognitive systems. As humans, no experience is more intense or pervasive than our use of language, so a lifetime of learning and using (at least) two languages has the potential to leave a profound mark on human cognition. A large body of research conducted with people at all stages in the lifespan, from infancy to old age, shows that the experience of being actively bilingual reshapes the mind and brain. Beginning with infants exposed to two languages at home and ending with older adults coping with dementia and neurodegenerative disease, cognitive and brain outcomes are different for monolinguals and bilinguals. These differences are generally in the direction of more precocious development for bilingual children and more protection against cognitive decline for bilingual older adults. This talk will review the evidence from these studies and propose an explanation for how exposure to and use of two languages leads to these cognitive and brain consequences.

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