by Steve Martindale
There are many good reasons to learn a second language, whatever your age. If you are young, studying more than one language can create job opportunities in an increasingly globalised world; if you are older and move abroad, then speaking the local tongue will enhance your experience on a social and cultural level. But there is also one added benefit that more and more studies are highlighting: speaking more than one language can stave off the effects of dementia.
The brain is a complex organ and the causes of dementia are still not fully understood, but there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that polyglots will develop the disease later in life than those who only speak one language.
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system,” explained Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto. “We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.”
In her research, which was originally published the journal Neurology, Bialystok looked at 211 people with probable Alzheimer’s disease, 102 of whom were bilingual and 109 monolingual. She noted the age at which the patients’ cognitive impairment had started and her results showed that bilingual patients had been diagnosed an average of 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients.
Whilst even school level language showed some benefits, the effect was greatest for people who had to use the language every day and continually choose between two sets of words. “It works best for people who speak two languages every day, like immigrants moving to a new country who speak their own language at home… but every little bit helps.”
The scientist believes that the act of switching between different languages and inhibiting those that are not needed, stimulates the brain, creating a cognitive reserve. “It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”
This last analogy is crucial, as repeated studies have shown that keeping your brain active is not a silver bullet against dementia, it will simply allow you to cope with the disease for longer, something that has been highlighted by a subsequent study by Bialystok of the brains of dementia sufferers. A group of monolingual and bilingual dementia patients, who were the same age and functioned at the same cognitive level, were scanned using a CT machine. The results showed that the physical effects of the disease were more advanced in the bilinguals’ brains, even though their mental ability was approximately the same. “Apparently, the bilinguals’ brains are somehow compensating,” explained Bialystok. “Even though the ‘machine’ is more broken, they can function at the same level as a monolingual with less disease.”
It is not just later in life that the benefits of speaking multiple languages manifest themselves. It has long been known that bilingual children will outperform their monolingual peers in certain tasks controlled by the executive control system, such as editing out irrelevant information, focusing on important details and prioritising. “We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking,” explained Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University in the US. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective-taking.”
It had previously been assumed that speaking multiple languages “confused” the brain, but the opposite has now been shown to be the case. “The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children. The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”
For those of us who were not lucky enough to have picked up a second language at school, there are still plenty of health benefits to learning another tongue later in life… and it is never too late to try. “Being bilingual is one way to keep your brain active – it’s part of the cognitive-reserve approach to brain fitness. The more the better and every little bit helps!” Bialystok concludes.
So next time you set yourself health goals – be they losing weight, getting fit, or cutting down on your alcohol consumption – why not add a few hours of French study into the equation… it’s a lot less tiring than jogging!!