Foreign languages could delay dementia

Posted on July 13, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature students

I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to study a selection of languages at school. Of course, I’m grateful with the benefit of hindsight; I was not so thankful at the time! Although, if I’d had access to the research results I’m about to share with you, I think we all might have paid more attention during French class.

I have been blessed with being pretty good at languages, and although I wouldn’t claim fluency in any of them, including Spanish, which I started to learn in my 40s, I can see the advantages they have brought me during my career. Latin, perhaps the most of all because my knowledge of that ancient language has helped me to understand the modern Romance languages—French, Spanish and Italian—with greater ease. It also helped me when studying English literature and probably even in solving crossword puzzles. So, I’m delighted to discover that learning languages benefits us all by helping to slow the ageing process in the brain, and possibly preventing the development of dementia.

The foreign language issue

British people have a ‘not-so-good’ international reputation with regard to learning foreign languages. Somewhere down the line, we adopted a “laissez-faire” approach, by comparison with many other nationalities especially the Dutch, who work hard at being multilingual. Now, a recent study by the University of Edinburgh, has revealed that we’d be a lot sharper in later life if we spent more time conjugating foreign verbs.

Scottish study shows benefits of bilingualism

This is the discovery of the Lothian Birth Cohort study. Its participants were first tested in 1947 with standard intelligence tests at age 11 and then again at age 73. When the results of the two tests were compared: they showed that those people in the group who spoke two or more languages had better thinking skills in later life than would have been predicted from the IQ results at age 11. Dr Thomas Bak of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology commented on the significance of the report, saying; “Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may provide a small benefit to the ageing brain.”

Caroline Abrahams, the Charity Director at Age UK, is similarly encouraged by this research finding. She says, “Over one million people in the UK aged 65 and over are estimated to have some degree of cognitive impairment…this latest breakthrough is another stride forward in finding out how thinking skills can be preserved in later life.”

Multilingual people are problem solvers

There are other significant benefits to acquiring another language at any time in life, according to an article in The Atlantic that focuses on the research of Professor George Lakoff, an expert in cognitive science and linguistics at The University of California at Berkeley. It states that multilinguals are “more perceptive to their surroundings and better at focusing on important information” than those people who are monoglot. Two of our favourite fictional characters—Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot—are shining examples of his skill. Speaking more than one language helped them both weed out misleading information during their investigations and get to the nub of the matter quicker.

…and decision makers

Apparently, learning another language makes you a better decision maker as well. And, according to a study by Spanish researchers multilinguals are less likely to be swayed by the emotional language of politics and advertising due to having more than one frame of reference for a word. Speaking more languages may also be good for your bank account, because you’ll be able to distinguish more readily between the value of ‘hypothetical’ money on your credit card and the ‘real’ cash in your pocket.

These claims are based on the idea that when we speak a foreign language we have some psychological distance from the meanings of the words. For example, if I say “I love’ something in Spanish, I don’t ‘feel’ it in the same way as when I say it in my native English. The lack of a history of attaching emotions to foreign words means that when you use an emotive phrase, there is a gap between what you feel and what you’re saying. Allegedly, it makes you more level headed.

Learning is more important than fluency

Finally, here’s the really good news: to reap all these benefits, the only thing you have to do is try to learn the language. You don’t have to become fluent. Dr Thomas Baks says that “just having the basics of linguistic connections,” such as knowing various ways to say yes, no, hello, good morning and so on, can contribute to delaying the onset of dementia. Whether you find a local class, or buy some DVDs, you’ll be boosting your brain’s health while learning how to ask “Do you speak English?” in other languages.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.