A lifetime of controlling experiences: Bilingualism as an experience-dependent mechanism governing aging

Keijzer, M., 19-Sep-2019.

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic

It’s freezing, an extraordinary -18 degrees Celsius, and it’s snowing, and in a language that is no longer mine the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost. This quote from Peter Hoeg’s novel Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow, depicting an Inuit girl from Greenland now living in Denmark, shows that language is a most powerful identification tool in a migrant setting. Perhaps most pertinent in this respect are aging migrants, people growing old in a setting where their first language is not the dominant language of the environment. On an anecdotal level, older migrants are often reported to revert to their first language and losing (portions of) their second language, reflecting a preoccupation with their past identities. It has been suggested, however, that this phenomenon may have been misinterpreted as language reversion and instead is a manifestation of diminished cognitive control in older adulthood, surfacing as bidirectional language interference (Clyne, 2011). In this plenary address, I will place central the constructs of language control and cognitive control in the context of elderly bilingual migrant populations. After having explored these constructs that are currently fiercely debated (cf. Kroll & Bialystok, 2013; Hartsuiker, 2015), I will turn to a broader discussion of how controlling two languages can have both beneficial effects at an older age that are in line with the so-labeled ‘bilingual advantage’ and lead to more healthy aging, but also detrimental effects that may lead to aging processes being sped up. I will show the crucial role that language use patterns and social networks play in this repsect. Building on this discussion, I will end with an exploration of how introducing a bilingual experience (i.e. learning a new language) to a non-migrant and functionally monolingual senior group may benefit their cognitive as well as mental wellbeing. This plenary address is supported by data from the work of others and studies that have been conducted and continue to be conducted at the Bilingualism and Aging Lab ( at the University of Groningen. Within this lab we use both elaborate language use and background questionnaires, as well as social networks and wellbeing surveys that we relate to behavioral (language and cognitive task) data as well as neuroimaging data (EEG and fNIRS). Clyne, M. (2011). Bilingualism, code-switching, and aging: a myth of attrition and a tale of collaboration. In Schmid, M.S., & Lowie, W. (Eds.), Modeling Biligualism: From structure to chaos (pp. 201-222). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Hartsuiker,R. (2015). Why it is pointless to ask under what specific circumstances the bilingual advantage occurs. Cortex, 73, 336-337, doi; 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.07.018. 1 Krol, J.F., & Bialystok,E. (2013). Understanding the consequences of bilingualism for language processing and cognition. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), doi; 10.1080/20445911.2013.799170.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 19-Sep-2019
EventApproaches to migration, language and identity: Practices, ideologies, and policies no and then - University of Duisburg/Essen, Essen, Germany
Duration: 19-Sep-201921-Sep-2019
Conference number: 2019


ConferenceApproaches to migration, language and identity
Abbreviated titleAMLI
Internet address


Approaches to migration, language and identity: Practices, ideologies, and policies no and then


Essen, Germany

Event: Conference


  • aging, language attrition, bilngualsm, elderly

ID: 121598169