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AAAS Member Eleonora Rossi Studies How Bilingualism Makes Brains More Resilient

Eleonora Rossi. Credit: Alessandra Tecla Gerevini.

Eleonora Rossi is a neurolinguist who grew up in a city with two names: Bolzano in Italian, and Bozen in German. In her hometown in northern Italy, the signs on the streets used both languages.

Later, as a student at the University of Padua studying speech pathology, she was gripped by a researcher’s lecture on the resilience of stroke patients who spoke more than one language. It changed her life.

“There I was, sitting in the audience, thinking, why have you never thought of this yourself? For me, this was that ‘aha’ moment,” says Rossi, a AAAS Member and AAAS Community ambassador. A lot has happened for Rossi since that lecture on resilience in Italy.

In 2001, after completing her master’s degree in speech therapy and pathology, she shifted her studies to the neuroscience of bilingualism. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Florida. She uses tools like electroencephalogram, eye-tracking, and magnetic resonance imaging to learn about the cognitive and neural effects of second language acquisition and how those processes change as people age.

Further, she has good news for anyone who’s considering learning a new language during lockdown: It may be easier than you think.

First of all, Rossi notes, learning a new language may be one of the best things you can do for your brain health. It can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms by an average of four years, according to research.

She also notes that the extra demand that learning a language can put on neural networks appears to be good for the brain.

“The idea is that after a lifetime of juggling two languages, your brain might be better at lasting a little longer,” Rossi says. “These data are very strong in the literature.”

She offers three pieces of advice for those who want to learn a language:

  • It’s never too late for your brain to learn a new language.
  • Learning a language might bring positive social changes; your social network might expand.
  • Even a little exposure to a new language can make a big difference.

It’s not that speaking another language engages a different part of the brain, Rossi says; it engages networks in the brain that are not normally dedicated to speech.

“It might boost the brain holistically,” she says. “There is pretty solid data showing bilingual brains have long-lasting neurological changes. . .. Your brain might be better at lasting a little longer.”

In her own research, Rossi has worked recently with Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Language Science at the University of California at Irvine, to study the neuroscience of language learning.

For the research, they gave two groups of English speakers access to a computer-based language program to learn Dutch. One group lived in the Netherlands, and the other group lived in the United States. They spent 35 minutes a day with the program for 10 days.

Preliminary findings show that for both groups, “these people were learning basic vocabulary, and their brains were way ahead,” Rossi says. “At the neural level, we know that the brain is learning more than we think.”

Preliminary findings also show that those who spent time with the program got better scores on attention and memory tests. Further, Rossi says, results showed that for the subjects living in the Netherlands, even if they spoke English all the time, just being in the country boosted their group’s ability to learn Dutch.

In other words, Rossi says, your brain is highly receptive to learning a language that you hear in public. She expects see to this research published by the end of 2020.

In the next couple of years, Rossi is focusing on other aspects of resilience, particularly building “a strong interdisciplinary community of scientists to study bilingualism in the brain. I envision a highly collaborative environment,” she says.

As a AAAS Superhero – a community ambassador for the organization online – Rossi wants to boost the profiles of young scientists and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. To that end, she is promoting the activities of Women in Cognitive Science, an organization that works to improve the visibility of women in the field by ensuring that they appear on editorial boards, get seats on influential committees and secure visible positions in professional organizations. As a core member, Rossi helps organize and lead activities.

“Science should not have gaps,” she says, “and should leave no one behind.”

As she works to improve our understanding of the effects of bilingualism on neural networks, Rossi, who grew up splitting her culture and her thoughts between German and Italian, has one more reminder to cheer on those who would venture into learning a language in these challenging and stressful times.

“Contrary to what most people think,” she says, “the majority of people in the world speak more than one language. By brute force, they learned two or three.”

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Rebecca Raney