Two languages are better than one
Speaking more than one language is a skill to be envied that can help you in business, as well as in leisure abroad. But a recent study now claims that it could also carry with it health benefits.
The social and cultural benefits of bilingualism have long been known; children who grow up in a bilingual household often have a unique perspective on both cultures, and an affinity with languages. Now, research published in the medical journal Neurology suggests that the processes in the brain involved with switching between languages can stave off the effects of dementia.
A joint study from Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in India and the University of Edinburgh found that people who are fluent in two or more languages experience a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and fronto-temporal dementia.
Researchers looked at 650 people diagnosed with dementia. They found that switching between languages, which often entails changing between vastly differing sounds, words and grammatical structures, creates a natural form of brain training.
Thomas Bak, of the University of Edinburgh’s school of philosophy, psychology and language sciences, said: “These findings suggest that bilingualism might have a stronger influence on dementia than any currently available drugs. This makes the study of the relationship between bilingualism and cognition one of our highest priorities.”
However, the experts say more research is needed due to the difficulties in studying bilingual populations. Areas where bilingualism is common are often ethnically and culturally different from monolingual societies, and this fact can require new avenues of research.
Places such as Hyderabad in India are perfect for research into dual languages, as knowledge of several languages is the norm, while monolingualism the exception.
The study into the impact of bilingualism on dementia is said to be the largest of its kind when looked at independent of other factors such as education, gender and occupation.
The effect was seen even in patients who never attended school and were classed as illiterate, indicating that it is not caused by differences in formal education, researchers said.
For a speaker to turn one language off while accessing another sees the brain access the executive function – cognitive processes such as memory – and attention function – that which is needed to interact effectively with the people around you, according to Medpage Today.
Particular note was taken of the apparent link between the brain training effect and its ability to protect the mind from harm – the brain’s cognitive reserve.
Cognitive reserve was described by Dr Stephen Rao, of the Cleveland Clinic, as “the ability of the brain to keep functioning normally despite significant disease or injury”. Previous research has shown that education and “higher order cognitive abilities” have also been shown to strengthen cognitive reserve. He suggests that the activity within many different areas of the brain required to switch between languages aids the ‘training’ effect.
What is still to be identified is the effect of learning another language later in life. The latest research and previous studies have concentrated on children who were brought up speaking more than one language. However, past studies have noted that mental exercises undertaken by people over the age of 50 do have positive effects in delaying dementia.
So it’s never too late to take advantage of the advantages that learning a new language offer, and you never know what further benefits might be discovered in the future.