Becoming fluent in Spanish could help slow down some effects of aging
As a recent article in Science News makes clear, knowing and even learning a second language improves brain functioning and may protect our aging brains. Of course, I am happy enough already that my efforts to become fluent in Spanish are paying off – both in my increasing fluency and in the fun I’m having in the process. But it’s nice to know that just knowing Spanish creates a kind of automatic brain exercise that improves my brain functioning now – and could significantly delay the negative effects of Alzheimer’s (should I be so unfortunate to get it in the future). Maybe my language study is just as beneficial to my brain functioning as Luminosity and similar mental exercise games! Except that those games won’t help me speak Spanish.
How does being bilingual give your brain such a great workout?
Lisa Seachrist Chiu, author of the Science News article writes:
One of the most intriguing aspects about bilingual people is that they are constantly activating both languages in their brains, says Viorica Marian, who studies the cognitive and neurological effects of bilingualism at Northwestern University. So, for example, your brain starts guessing words the minute you hear even a fragment of a word. An English-only speaker might hear the word can and his or her brain activates the words candy and candle as possibilities. Someone who speaks two languages will activate similar sounding words in both languages. The trick is to use the appropriate word.
To compare how bilingual and monolingual speakers accomplish this task, Marian and her colleagues had subjects perform a language comprehension task while observing what parts of the brain become active using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Volunteers ages 18 to 27 heard a series of words like cloud and were shown pictures that included clouds — and similar sounding words like clown. The subjects simply had to choose the picture that matched the word.
Bilingual people were no faster at completing the task than those who only speak one language. However, the monolingual volunteers were forced to activate regions in their brains associated with inhibition and executive control when completing this routine task. Bilingual volunteers, because their brains are always filtering out words from another language, had very little activation in these brain regions. Those who spoke only one language were working harder.
In effect, routinely filtering out words from another language and using the appropriate language is such a potent workout for the brain that other tasks involving executive function are relatively easy.
And What is the effect of being bilingual on the brain as it ages?
As Lisa Seachrist Chiu points out, this extra, automatic brain exercise may be crucial as we age:
Studies around the world show that bilingual people start showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease about 5 years later than monolingual people. Most recently, Evy Woumans, Wouter Duyck and colleagues at the University in Ghent in Belgium reported in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition that bilingual Alzheimer’s patients developed significant symptoms on average 4.6 years later than monolingual Alzheimer’s patients and received their diagnoses 4.8 years later than monolingual people. It’s important to note that Alzhiemer’s disease is not developing later in bilingual people — the numbers reflect that this group is dealing much better with the damage caused by the disease.
And language seems to have a stronger effect than any other factor:
And, it turns out, language may have a stronger effect than education, socioeconomic status and participating in mentally taxing hobbies like playing music. Researchers at the University of Hyderabad, India, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland demonstrated a similar bilingual advantage in the development of Alzheimer’s symptoms among subjects who were illiterate.
So, why would being bilingual have a greater effect than, say, playing the piano? The answer may lie in the fact that we are constantly using language. Anything that is hard to do is good for the brain: solving math problems, playing chess, playing music. But engaging in any of those activities employs language because it requires thought. In effect, if you are bilingual, you are thinking twice.
Not just for Children
Fortunately, these brain benefits seem to apply to people of all ages. Lisa Seachrist Chiu adds:
And, while l speak only one language, research is also telling me that it’s not too late to step up: A study published this month found that adults who took six months of Spanish language classes had improved executive function compared with those who didn’t study language.