I have always admired others who have the ability to speak more than one language fluently. My memories of being taught French and German at school are hazy to say the least.
We were out having dinner with friends recently when it was casually mentioned that a particular friend could speak four languages well. When we commented on how impressed we were, he responded saying. “Well that’s nothing, my wife can speak six!”
They are a truly multilingual family. Born in Switzerland and South Africa, now residing in Australia, they have managed to maintain their verbal fluency by using different languages depending on what is being discussed and whether they think you might understand some of what they are saying! Not surprisingly, their children all have the same ease of slipping into French and German when sitting around the dinner table.
You may be asking, so what?
Well apart from being really useful when travelling overseas and impressing one’s friends, it appears that being bilingual helps to contribute to our cognitive reserve.
Having the ability to speak two languages consistently over the years has been shown in a study to delay the apparent onset of dementia by up to five years.
It’s not that being bilingual prevents Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s more that having the brain deal with two sets of vocabulary, grammar etc allows it to defer the clinical manifestation of memory loss, confusion, and difficulty with problem solving and planning.
The Canadian study looked at 211 people with probable Alzheimer’s disease over a two-year period. The date of diagnosis and age of onset of cognitive decline was recorded along with information about occupation, education and language history. From this, 102 people were classified as bilingual and 109 as monolingual.
(In Canada, many of the population speak English, French or both.)
The researchers found that those who were bilingual were on average diagnosed with Alzheimer’s around 4.3 years later than those who were monolingual.
There was no difference relating to gender, immigration, cognition or occupational level.
This study supports how our lifestyle plays a very important role in how our brain copes with age related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.
Perhaps this provides us with a golden opportunity to brush off our dusty language books, sign up to learn a new language at college or on-line and book that next holiday so we can practise our new found skills.
Which one are you going to learn first?
Fergus I.M. Craik, Ellen Bialystok, Morris Freedman. Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 2010; 75: 1726-1729 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181fc2a1c