Back in February, I posted about a terrific symposium on bilingualism at the AAAS meeting ("What bilinguals tell us about Mind and Brain", 2/19/2011). Along with the symposium's abstract and a list of the participants, and some complaints about the AAAS's failure to make it symposiums accessible to a broader public by putting them on line, I promised that "If I have time, I'll summarize some of this work in a later post" — which never happened.
One of the most striking topics covered in that symposium was the fact that bilingualism offers, on average, about five years of protection against the symptoms of Alzheimer's, apparently by creating a "cognitive reserve" in executive function that allows people to continue performing at a higher mental level for a given degree of brain degeneration. This research was the focus of a recent New York Times article: Claudia Dreifus, "The Bilingual advantage", 5/30/2011.
The article is in the form of a Q&A between the reporter, Claudia Dreifus, and the researcher, Ellen Bialystok. The content is excellent — clear, to the point, not hyped or spun for effect — and there are links to the research papers!
Update — Lila Gleitman writes:
I just looked at the front page of the NYT (on line) and found two ill-assorted articles. One shows Byalistok's work on "the bilingual advantage" — her research is one of several kinds to appear lately pointing to enhanced cognitive flexibility in bilinguals as opposed to monolinguals (see also, e.g., Kovacs & Mehler, and recent findings from Trueswell & Thompson-Schill). The other article announces that NY State will drop the Regents Exams in foreign languages for a savings of $700,000 a year. Perhaps this isn't as bitterly ironic as it could be, given the doubtful value of classroom teaching of foreign languages. Still, it seems the US continues to be incoherent in educational policies supporting what Obama calls "American competitiveness."