Double talk: Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer’s, increase cognition and expand your horizons

Beyond a means of communication, the ability to speak multiple languages includes a wide variety of benefits — many unknown to those who even possess the capability to converse with people all over the world. For some students on campus, bilingualism has been a lifelong skill, leading to the pursuit of future language acquisition and aiding in everyday life.

Further, recent studies have shown that bilinguals have many cognitive advantages. For example, studies show that bilingualism may aid in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“Handling two languages in your head is like cognitive gymnastics,” said Silvina Montrul, professor in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. “So as I am speaking English to you, I have to suppress my Spanish, for example.”

Beyond the cognitive and metalinguistic advantages, Montrul said learning a second language can have a large impact on a person’s life, opening doors for those desire a unique perspective.

“Today we live in a global world,” she said. “Knowledge of something more than us is really important.”

For Sasha Kupershmidt, freshman in LAS, being bilingual is a quality she has possessed since preschool. With her first language of Russian, which she learned with her parents at home, Kuperschmidt learned English when she starting attending school. For the past five years, Kuperschmidt has been studying and practicing French with plans to immerse herself in Parisian life to fully master the language. With three languages under her belt, Kuperschmidt has seen this skill repeatedly work in her favor.

“Russian has helped me because I obviously wouldn’t be able to communicate with my family,” she said. “I have also been to Russia and Ukraine, where my family is from, over past summers, so communicating with all of the people there and knowing a whole new culture that takes up almost two continents is fascinating.”

Aside from communication with family, Kuperschmidt hopes to use her language skills to further her career aspirations of working as a dentist.

While Kupershmidt might have been bilingual at an early age, that does not mean it doesn’t have its challenges.

“Most people say that it’s easier to learn another language once you already know one, but what I have learned is that it is easier to learn a second language after you have learned one by the book,” she said.

Kupershmidt learned Russian from listening to her parents at home, but she doesn’t have textbook grammar knowledge.

“I know it because I hear it and it sounds right,” she said. “Had I learned Russian by the textbook, then I definitely would have known what it means to conjugate a verb or that adjectives go before nouns or something.”

Kuperschmidt has learned a great deal of patience in maintaining and learning a new language, forcing herself to practice among family members and using flashcards to expand her knowledge of the French language. This perseverance has paid off for her so far.

“Learning a language takes diligence and patience and a lot of practice,” she said. “So I think that it has taught me that you have to be very diligent about learning it — and I have taken that to other parts of my schooling and my life.”

Peter Alemis, sophomore in LAS, has a similar background to Kuperschmidt. Alemis’ first language is Greek after learning to speak it at home and in Greek school. He is fluent in English, Greek and Spanish and considers himself conversational in Italian.

Alemis studied Spanish for five years and spent a summer in Madrid, which helped him further understand the language. He learned Italian in school and credits his ability to learn diverse languages with his background.

“Italian and Spanish were easier to pick up because I know Greek,” he said. “Learning Greek helped me learn Spanish easier because I had the accent and it’s easier to pick up similar words in the language.”

Alemis’ ability to master multiple languages has benefitted him in more ways than one — including improving his knowledge of the world.

“One thing that stood out to me is that I have met friends all over the world so I feel more global, and it’s cool knowing language so that I can communicate with other people in their own languages,” he said. “It has expanded my knowledge of the world and other cultures.”

Montrul said that being bilingual is particularly beneficial when started at a young age. In addition to teaching on campus, Montrul has dedicated part of her time to founding the University Language Academy for Children at the University of Illinois, which focuses on providing after school opportunities for children to learn Spanish. The program highlights the benefits of early second language education, including cognitive, academic, social and cultural advantages to children.

Much of Montrul’s research on campus focuses on second language acquisition of adults who started in high school, as many students on campus have attempted. While adults have the ability to study more because their cognitive capacity is higher, the result is not always as successful as if the learning were to start earlier.

“As a child, you are making slower progress, but you are also setting the roots for what will happen in the future,” she said.

Language acquisition in children also enhances cognitive development, especially when they are in a situation where they are adding a second language to their knowledge. If a child understands two languages and tries to learn a third language, it becomes much easier.

Whether students grew up bilingual, took language class in high school or have yet to make it through Rosetta Stone tapes, the benefits of learning multiple languages can last a lifetime.

Kelly can be reached at