Duolingo App: Learning a Second Language Boosts Brain Health

Award Date: 2018

Project Lead(s): Jed Meltzer, Bozena Pajak

Project Title: Boosting Cognitive Reserve through Adult Second Language Acquisition with Duoling

What is the issue?

Lifestyles promoting education and curiosity are protective against dementia. Studies show that speaking two languages fluently can delay a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease by four years. Acquiring a second language later in life may also have a protective effect on brain health. Research suggests that the protective effects of being bilingual trace to improved executive function, a set of mental skills that include flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control, and attention. In today’s digital world, smartphone apps can teach languages, and brain training software can improve executive function.

What did we do?

We studied whether learning a second language would improve brain health in adults aged 65 to 75. Study participants in one group used the Duolingo smartphone app for 30 minutes daily over four months to learn Spanish. Volunteers in another group used a brain training program called BrainHQ over the same period. We measured executive function and attention abilities for participants in both groups and compared results with a control group.

What did we find?

The BrainHQ group showed strongly improved executive function abilities compared to the control group. Participants in the Duolingo group also improved executive function compared to the control group but to a lesser degree than BrainHQ. However, study volunteers were more satisfied with Duolingo. They found it easier to stick to and made progress in learning a second language.