Today, speaking two or more languages may be a relatively normal occurrence. Now business owners, explorers and even the average student may be expected to interact fluently in a second tongue. This activity was once thought of as a challenging prospect, inhibiting children’s educational development; however, this antiquated opinion has been changed in favour of the exact opposite. Yet, further evidence remains to support the beneficial aspects of speaking a second language.
A paper published in the journal of Neurobiology has provided the latest evidence speaking a second language may be beneficial to the long-term health of the brain. A study carried out in India has identified a link between the rate of onset dementia and speaking a second language. To date, this study is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind; between 2006-2012 scientists reviewed 391 bilingual patients and 257 monolingual patients were diagnosed with dementia.
Patients were accessed at a clinic in Hyderabad, India, an area chosen due to its diverse linguistic palette. Patients who were monolingual first displayed symptoms of dementia an average of 4.5 years earlier than their bilingual counterparts.It was theorized that people who are bilingual might have received a higher level of education and might therefore have stronger brain health.
However, it was shown that even in the case of illiterate patients, bilingual members displayed the first signs of dementia on average six years later than illiterate monolinguists. These results suggest education alone provides little towards explaining this observation. Scientists highlighted the special nature of switching between languages in standard conversation, a behavior known as code switching, where the speaker frequently alternates between languages creating an almost hybridized language. One of the authors of this report, Thomas Bak stated, “Bilingualism combines a lot of different mental activities. You have to switch sounds, concepts, grammatical structures, cultural concepts. It stimulates your brain all the time.” This offers a type of constant brain training which may purportedly the reason that bilinguists’ brains stay healthier longer.
Even though the previous Canadian research produced the exact same results, these studies needed a fair and sizeable dataset to justify its findings. The main challenge seen within the Canadian experiment is that whilst monolinguists were mostly Canadian, multilinguists were on the majority immigrants.
As such, observations upon dementia within this study might be attributed towards variations betweens Canadians and variable immigrants, opposed to the learning of a second language. The most recent Indian study finally removes potentially confounding factors such as education, sex, occupation, and urban versus rural dwelling of subjects. This produces a compelling report to promote the use of a second language and the importance of preserving the original tongue.
Currently, it may be highly recommended that children commit to a second language purely on the grounds of health. Presently, scientists are unsure learning a language at a much later age may have the same effect, pointing the onus of dementia alleviating language learning towards children. Yet Thomas Bak reassuringly stated that “there is always time,” promoting further research upon the subject and its application.
Interestingly, whilst a second language acts to stave off the symptoms of dementia, patients who fluently spoke more than two languages saw as many years dementia free as patients only learnt two. This displays to achieve optimum brain maintenance, only one extra language may be needed to acquire, making it a highly attainable goal for the average person.
If a second language acts to reduce the onset of dementia, how effective is a second language towards inhibiting dementia symptoms after the initial onset?