Tag Archives: #bilingualism

Bilingualism As A Natural Therapy For Autistic Children (Language)

An international team led by UNIGE demonstrates that the characteristics of bilingualism allow autistic children to compensate for certain fundamental deficits.

Affecting more than one in a hundred children, autism spectrum disorder is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It has a particular impact on social interaction, including difficulties in understanding other people’s perspectives, beliefs, desires and emotions, known as ‘theory of mind’. Bilingual families with an autistic child often tend – and are sometimes encouraged – to forego the use of one of the home languages, so as not to further complicate the development of their child’s communicative skills. A researcher from the University of Geneva (UNIGE, Switzerland), in collaboration with the Universities of Thessaly (Greece) and Cambridge (Great-Britain), has shown that bilingualism allows autistic children to partially compensate for deficits in theory of mind and executive functions, which are at the root of many of their challenges. These results can be read in the journal Autism Research.

Diagnosed in early childhood, autism spectrum disorder has a particular impact on a child’s social and communicative abilities. “It is a spectrum, which is why the intensity of the symptoms varies greatly”, explains Stéphanie Durrleman, a researcher in the Department of Linguistics at the UNIGE Faculty of Arts and co-author of the study. “But what children with autism have in common is that they have difficulties putting themselves in the place of their interlocutor, focusing on the latter’s point of view and thus disengaging their attention from their own perspective.” Autism therefore affects not only everything that has to do with the theory of mind – understanding the beliefs, emotions, intentions and desires of others – but also often executive functions, including attentional abilities.


Could benefits of bilingualism be applied to children with autism?

Studies on bilingualism have shown that children without autism who use several languages have increased theory of mind and executive function skills compared to monolingual children. “Bilingualism therefore seems to bring benefits precisely where the autistic child has difficulties”, says Stéphanie Durrleman. “We therefore wondered whether bilingual autistic children manage to mitigate the difficulties of their neurodevelopmental disorder by using two languages every day.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers from the universities of Geneva, Thessaly and Cambridge followed 103 autistic children aged 6 to 15, 43 of whom were bilingual. “In order to observe the real effects of bilingualism on their socio-communicative skills, we grouped them according to their age, gender and the intensity of their autistic disorder”, explains Eleni Peristeri, researcher at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Thessaly and co-author of the study. The participants then performed various tasks to assess their theory of mind and executive function skills. The bilinguals quickly distinguished themselves by scoring higher than their monolingual peers. “On tasks relating to theory of mind, i.e. their ability to understand another person’s behaviour by putting themselves in their place, the bilingual children gave 76% correct answers, compared with 57% for the monolingual children”, notes the Greek researcher. The same is true for executive functions: the score for correct responses in bilinguals is twice that of monolinguals. But why are the differences so clear?

“Bilingualism requires the child to work first on skills directly related to theory of mind, i.e. he or she must constantly be concerned with the knowledge of others: Does the person I am speaking to speak Greek or Albanian? In what language should I talk to him or her? Then, in a second phase, the child uses his executive functions by focusing his attention on one language, while inhibiting the second”, explains Eleni Peristeri. This is a real gymnastics for the brain, which acts precisely on the deficits linked to the autistic disorder.


Encouraging bilingualism instead of giving it up

“From our evaluations, we can clearly see that bilingualism is very beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorders”, enthuses Stéphanie Durrleman. In order to certify that the socio-economic level in which the participants grew up did not play a role in the results, this was also recorded and it turned out that the bilingual children were mostly in a lower socio-economic environment than the monolinguals. “We can therefore affirm that benefits in theory of mind and executive functions emerge in bilinguals, even when there is a socio-economic disadvantage”, says the Geneva researcher.

These findings are important for the care of children diagnosed with autism. “Indeed, as this neurodevelopmental disorder often affects language acquisition, bilingual families tend to give up the use of one of the two languages, so as not to exacerbate the learning process. However, it is now clear that far from putting autistic children in difficulty bilingualism can, on the contrary, help these children to overcome several aspects of their disorder, serving as a kind of natural therapy”, concludes Stéphanie Durrleman.

Featured image credit: Garner


Reference: Peristeri, E., Baldimtsi, E., Vogelzang, M., Tsimpli, I. M., & Durrleman, S. (2021). The cognitive benefits of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorder: Is theory of mind boosted and by which underlying factors? Autism Research, 1– 15. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2542


Provided by University of Geneve

Actively Speaking Two Languages Protects Against Cognitive Decline (Language / Neuroscience)

Researchers conclude that regularly speaking two languages contributes to cognitive reserve and delays the onset of the symptoms associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

In addition to enabling us to communicate with others, languages are our instrument for conveying our thoughts, identity, knowledge, and how we see and understand the world. Having a command of more than one enriches us and offers a doorway to other cultures, as discovered by a team of researchers led by scientists at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). Using languages actively provides neurological benefits and protects us against cognitive decline associated with ageing.

In a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, the researchers conclude that regularly speaking two languages -and having done so throughout one’s life- contributes to cognitive reserve and delays the onset of the symptoms associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

“We have seen that the prevalence of dementia in countries where more than one language is spoken is 50% lower than in regions where the population uses only language to communicate”, asserts researcher Marco Calabria, a member of the Speech Production and Bilingualism research group at UPF and of the Cognitive NeuroLab at the UOC, and professor of Health Sciences Studies, also at the UOC.

Previous work had already found that the use of two or more languages throughout life could be a key factor in increasing cognitive reserve and delaying the onset of dementia; also, that it entailed advantages of memory and executive functions.

“We wanted to find out about the mechanism whereby bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve with regard to mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, and if there were differences regarding the benefit it confers between the varying degrees of bilingualism, not only between monolingual and bilingual speakers”, points out Calabria, who led the study.

Thus, and unlike other studies, the researchers defined a scale of bilingualism: from people who speak one language but are exposed, passively, to another, to individuals who have an excellent command of both and use them interchangeably in their daily lives. To construct this scale, they took several variables into account such as the age of acquisition of the second language, the use made of each, or whether they were used alternatively in the same context, among others.

The researchers focused on the population of Barcelona, where there is strong variability in the use of Catalan and Spanish, with some districts that are predominantly Catalan-speaking and others where Spanish is mainly spoken. “We wanted to make use of this variability and, instead of comparing monolingual and bilingual speakers, we looked at whether within Barcelona, where everyone is bilingual to varying degrees, there was a degree of bilingualism that presented neuroprotective benefits”, Calabria explains.

Bilingualism and Alzheimer’s

At four hospitals in the Barcelona and metropolitan area, they recruited 63 healthy individuals, 135 patients with mild cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, and 68 people with Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia. They recorded their proficiency in Catalan and Spanish using a questionnaire and established the degree of bilingualism of each subject. They then correlated this degree with the age at which the subjects’ neurological diagnosis was made and the onset of symptoms.

To better understand the origin of the cognitive advantage, they asked the participants to perform various cognitive tasks, focusing primarily on the executive control system, since the previous studies had suggested that this was the source of the advantage. In all, participants performed five tasks over two sessions, including memory and cognitive control tests.

“We saw that people with a higher degree of bilingualism were given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment later than people who were passively bilingual”, states Calabria, for whom, probably, speaking two languages and often changing from one to the other is life-long brain training. According to the researcher, this linguistic gymnastics is related to other cognitive functions such as executive control, which is triggered when we perform several actions simultaneously, such as when driving, to help filter relevant information.

The brain’s executive control system is related with the control system of the two languages: it must alternate them, make the brain focus on one and then on the other so as not to cause one language to intrude in the other when speaking.

“This system, in the context of neurodegenerative diseases, might offset the symptoms. So, when something does not work properly as a result of the disease, the brain has efficient alternative systems to solve it thanks to being bilingual”, Calabria states, who then continues: “we have seen that the more you use two languages and the better language skills you have, the greater the neuroprotective advantage. Active bilingualism is, in fact, an important predictor of the delay in the onset of the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, a preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s disease, because it contributes to cognitive reserve”.

Now, the researchers wish to verify whether bilingualism is also beneficial for other diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.

References : Marco Calabria, Mireia Hernández, Gabriele Cattaneo, Anna Suades, Mariona Serra, Montserrat Juncadella, Ramón Reñé, Isabel Sala, Alberto Lleó, Jordi Ortiz-Gil, Lidia Ugas, Asunción Ávila, Isabel Gómez Ruiz, César Ávila, Albert Costa (2020) “Active bilingualism delays the onset of mild cognitive impairment”, Neuropsychologia, Vol. 146, 107528, ISSN 0028-3932, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0028393220302013?via%3Dihub
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107528

Provided by University of Pompeu Fabra- Bercelona