Being Bilingual May Help the Inattention and Executive Functioning of ADHD

My family is from Cuba and I grew up in a bilingual household. My parents were afraid that we would forget how to speak Spanish so we were supposed to speak only Spanish at home. My grandparents lived with us and they spoke no English so I spoke Spanish to them and to my parents but to my brothers and sisters I always spoke English.

According to the article below, being bilingual helps Executive Functioning. Russell Barkely has reported that people with ADHD have poor Executive Functioning and we know that brain training can help overcome some of the deficiencies seen in ADHD Executive functioning. It seems that speaking two languages also helps with this. This effect is just one more example of the plasticity of the brain. Maybe it was more than just the Cuban coffee that helped my symptoms of Inattentive ADHD (ADHD-PI). Who knew??

The Jessica Marshall article describing the effects of bilingualism is below. Enjoy!! 

The longer a person has spoken two or more languages, the greater the cognitive effects.
By Jessica Marshall

Oct. 14, 2010 -- Executive functioning allows us to keep a goal in mind, take actions to achieve that goal, and to ignore other information that might distract us from that goal. Bilingualism appears to enhance executive function. Read More

Bilingual education is controversial in the United States, but a growing body of research shows that regularly speaking two languages comes with certain types of improved mental performance.

In a Perspective article appearing today in the journal Science, Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" highlights studies of bilingualism that show this effect.

Diamond began wondering about the effects on the brain of multilingualism while camping with New Guinea Highlanders, all of whom could speak between five and 15 languages.

"What are the cognitive effects of such multilingualism?" Diamond asked in the new article.
"Being able to use two languages and never knowing which one you're going to use right now rewires your brain," said Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Canada, whose work Diamond cited repeatedly in the article.

"The attentional executive system which is crucial for all higher thought -- it's the most important cognitive piece in how we think -- that system seems to be enhanced," she noted.

Executive functioning allows us to keep a goal in mind, take actions to achieve that goal, and to ignore other information that might distract us from that goal, said Albert Costa, who studies bilingualism at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

"The question is: Would it be the case that bilinguals, by the constant need for controlling the two languages, develop a more efficient executive functioning system?" he said. "The results suggest that bilinguals may have this positive collateral effect."

"The effects are much stronger when you go to kids and older people," he added. These are ages where executive functioning is worse.

Bialystok has shown that bilinguals do better at tests that require multitasking, including ones that simulated driving and talking on a phone.

"Make no mistake: Everybody is worse," Bialystok said, "but the bilinguals were less worse."

Bialystok's studies focused on people who were truly bilingual. The longer people have spoken multiple languages, the greater the cognitive effects. There are even benefits when languages were taken up at later ages. "We have not seen a cutoff," she said.

Bilingualism comes with some cost, Bialystok and Costa agreed.

"For bilinguals, there are a couple of milliseconds before you can target the right word in the right language. Bilinguals have more 'tip-of-the-tongue' problems," Bialystok said.

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  1. It's Bialystok not Bialystock.

  2. Sorry about that. I think I have corrected them all. Tess

  3. I just read an article about this subject in Newsweek and decided to find out more. Your article expands on what that article said.

    I am interested in this subject because I am trilingual and have ADHD. I became trilingual in my 20s and 30s, while also having studied Spanish in school during my teens. But it was not until my 20s and 30s that I began to use both Spanish and Portuguese regularly. I lived in Brazil for two years and later became a bilingual (Spanish) teacher. These experiences are what made me truly "trilingual."

    Looking back on it, it seems my ADHD symptoms were not as "bad" in those days and I thought it might have to do with my acquisition of 2 foreign languages. However, it may just be that, as the article above says, executive functioning is worse in childhood and older age (I'm 59).

    Even so, I would like to explore more on this subject, so thanks for this post!

  4. Anybody know of any studies out there? I'd like to get my son in one!


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