Feeling too old or lazy to learn a new language? Think again, for it may be worth persevering. Knowing an additional language is not only worth your while to converse with a wider audience, hitch a date or watch your favorite foreign language film without a subtitle. Researchers claim that it can have a positive effect on the brain and keep your mind sharp, no matter the age.
A study conducted by the University of Edinburgh and published in Annals of Neurology reveals that people who speak two or more languages, even those who learned the second language as adults, may slow down cognitive decline from aging.
The team, led by Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, relied on data from 835 native English speakers who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 and then again in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. Findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading.
The effects were also present in those who learned their second language early, as well as later in life. While it’s commonly known that learning a language is easier at a young age, this study suggests that it’s never too late to start in order to promote increased intelligence and healthy brain aging.
Dr. Bak said that the pattern they found was meaningful and the improvements in attention, focus and fluency could not be explained by original intelligence.
What breakthroughs is it going to make?
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK which supported the research, said: “Over one million people in the UK aged 65 and over are estimated to have some degree of cognitive impairment. We urgently need to understand what influences cognitive ageing so that we can give people better advice about protecting their cognitive health. This latest breakthrough is another stride forward in finding out how thinking skills can be preserved in later life.”
Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said: “The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”
“The study provides a unique research opportunity”, said Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, Canada, who was first to discover that being bilingual delays the onset of Alzheimer’s. “You have this absolutely homogenous sample of Scottish kids – all monolingual – and you let them go off and have their lives and see what happens,” she says.
Why does it work?
It has already been previously established that being bilingual has benefits of improved decision making, memory and critical thinking. A 2013 study found that bilingual patients suffer dementia onset an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only one language. A significant difference in age at onset was found across Alzheimer’s disease dementia as well as other kinds of dementia.
According to researchers from the Northwestern University in the United States, bilingualism is akin to brain training as it is a form of mental workout. Their study also revealed that bilinguals respond to sound better. In the test of 48 volunteer students, they found that those that only spoke English and those that were bilingual responded to different sounds in the same way under quiet laboratory conditions. When noisy chatter was introduced, those that were bilingual were able to tune in to all the important information and blocked out unnecessary chatter.
How could languages protect the brain? A leading theory is that people who speak several languages constantly activate all the available words in each one before choosing the appropriate expression, giving them a mental workout. If you are waiting for the right time to master a new language, the time is now.
Featured image is sourced from Flickr Creative Commons.
Featured photo credit: Shawn Econo via flickr.com