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Y. Lin1, D. Wei2, M. Gillon Dowens1

1University of Nottingham Ningbo China (CHINA)
2Lanzhou Jiaotong University (CHINA)
This project explores the degree of brain plasticity for learning a new language at older ages, by measuring the electrophysiological brain patterns of normally-aging, older Chinese adults who are retired and have been learning English at a local University for the Third Age (U3A). The project also aims to shed light on other impacts of the experience of learning a language later in life, in terms of psychological well-being and other cognitive and affective factors.

China, like most developed nations, is now an aging society, with dramatic increases in physical and cognitive age-related health issues and the associated challenges and costs to both society and individuals. This process has been speeded up by the recently-repealed one-child policy, introduced in 1979 in China, which has resulted in a population with an artificially large elderly demographic and fewer young people to take care of them and/or contribute to their upkeep (Feng, Cai, & Gu, 2013). There is therefore an urgent need for research in response to the challenge of improving physical health and psychological well-being in this aging population.

Avoiding the most negative effects of age-related cognitive decline may be related to the degree of “cognitive reserve” in individuals. That is, the degree of brain deterioration or damage that can actually be sustained before reaching a threshold for clinical expression (Stern, 2002). Several important indexes of cognitive reserve have recently been reported, such as educational attainment and, interestingly, bi- or multilingualism (Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). For example, a 4-year delay of Alzheimer’s disease onset has been found in early bilinguals (Bialystok, Abutalebi, Bak, Burke, & Kroll, 2016). It is important, therefore, to explore whether these cognitive benefits will also be observable in the case of late bilinguals with an age of second language acquisition after middle-age.

The participants in the study are Chinese first language speakers who started learning English at over 60 years old and are now in one of three learner levels in the U3A, designated Beginner (64 hours of class) Intermediate (192 hours) and Advanced (384 hours). Using the event-related potential (ERP) technique, the electrophysiological brain responses of these late learners to grammatical and semantic irregularities embedded in English sentences are recorded and compared to those of native speakers of similar age, and to younger learners of English. The resulting patterns of response, in terms of the well documented P600 and N400 ERP components (Kutas & Hillyard, 1980; Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992), and the developmental patterns of these across the levels, provide evidence about the degree of brain plasticity for language learning available in these older learners. Furthermore, several highly relevant socio-emotional factors such as locus of control and degree of psychological well-being (Levenson, 1981; Power & Schmidt, 2006) are also measured across the learner groups and compared to participants in control groups who are learners of calligraphy and Tai Chi, as well as other non-learners.

Organized as a cross-sectional as well as a longitudinal study, the preliminary results of this project provide important insights into the positive effects of learning languages at later ages.