Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Boost your brain! Learn a language

Maybe you are having second thoughts about exposing yourself or your child to a new foreign language. Please don’t! Nowadays there is more evidence than ever before that multilingualism has tremendous benefits for your brain.

Multiple scientists addressed this interesting phenomenon during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011. Ellen Bialystok of the York University in Toronto (Canada) pointed out that bilinguals seem to maintain better cognitive function (than monolinguals) as the human body begins its natural decline in old age. The research she carried out with Craik and Freedman shows that bilingualism even has a positive effect on slowing down dementia in the aging brain. They researched a group of patients with similar levels of cognitive impairment. Those that were bilingual had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later, on average, than those who spoke just one language. So at the same level of impairment, bilinguals are older, which shows they have been able to cope better with the disease. An important theory in explaining this is that speaking different languages keeps the mind active in the same way puzzles and games do, and works toward compensating for the build-up of the dementia-causing pathology in the brain.

Judith Kroll, researcher at Pennsylvania State University, said that bilinguals are also better than monolinguals at multitasking. Switching from one language to another helps bilinguals to ignore irrelevant information and prioritize tasks better than monolinguals. This makes sense considering that when a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. Speakers of multiple languages are constantly inhibiting multiple languages in favor of the one they are currently using. This statement is supported by a research on the effects of bilingualism on children. Bilingual children appear to make better choices based on conflicting information than monolingual children. Because a concept can be expressed differently in various languages, bilingual children know from early on that form and meaning are arbitrary. They learn to choose the correct word from the words they know depending on the context.

The results of these studies are supported by a research conducted by the researches from the University College London. They studied the brains of 105 people of whom 80 were bilingual. They found that learning other languages altered grey matter (the area of the brain which processes information) in the same way exercise builds muscles. Other benefits of multilingualism include an enhanced short-term memory capacity and problem-solving capability. Mainly due to enhanced mental flexibility. This involves neural pathways being opened up, which extends the capacity to think and opens access to different avenues for thought.

In terms of starting to learn a new language in a later stage in your life, the likelihood of becoming a fluent speaker is low, but it seems like every little bit helps in preventing cognitive decline. And proficiency may be more important than the age of acquisition according to Judith Kroll.  So don’t wait and start to learn a new language and give your brain that workout that it’s been longing for.

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