Time to start learning a second language!

Good news for all us bilinguals out there, it seems we’re doing something right for our brains! A recent study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh indicates that being able to speak more than one language delays the ageing of our brain.

The researchers looked at the change in cognitive abilities of bilinguals and monolinguals on the basis of their intelligent tests at the age of 11 and 70. Bilinguals scored notably better, especially on general intelligence and reading. These results could not be explained by the bilingual’s baseline intelligence and were true for both types of bilinguals: those who learned a second language early in life and those who learned their second language later in life. Leading researcher of this study, Dr. Bak, highlighted that: “These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

This is not the first study to show that there are considerable benefits to learning a second language. An earlier study, which looked at a group of 648 people from India diagnosed with dementia, showed that bilingualism delays the onset of dementia by four and a half years on average. This was not only true for frontotemporal and vascular dementia but Alzheimer’s disease as well.
Interestingly, the reported difference in cognitive ability between bilingual and monolinguals was also found in people who could not read. “Our study is the first to report an advantage of speaking two languages in people who are unable to read, suggesting that a person’s level of education is not a sufficient explanation for this difference,” said study author Suvarna Alladi, DM at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India. 

The study also indicated that it did not matter whether people were able to speak one additional language or more than one additional language. “Speaking more than one language is thought to lead to better development in the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect it from the onset of dementia.”

Another study has shown that changes occur to your brain network due to learning a new language, both structurally and functionally. “Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology at Penn State University. He and his colleagues studied the brain’s network via fMRI scanning of people who were able to learn Chinese vocabulary, people who were not able to learn the Chinese vocabulary and people who did not learn the Chinese vocabulary at all. The successful learners appeared to have a more connected brain network at the start, which shows that a more highly integrated brain makes it easier to learn a new language. This has to do with the flexibility and efficiency of the brain network. In addition, the researchers showed that functional brain changes occurred due to the learning process. “A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li. “We can still see anatomical changes in the brain (in the elderly), which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”

So, it seems bilingualism helps keep our brain young. Thus, for all those monolinguals out there, there seem to be good reasons for learning a second language and it is never too late start!

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