Benefits Of Being Bilingual: Two Languages May Delay Alzheimer's Disease

The Huffington Post Canada  |  By Posted: 04/ 2/2012 4:36 pm

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Many Canadians can attest that the bonuses of being bilingual are bountiful. Learning a second language has been shown to bring in more income and offers a more flexible mindset -- and now, a study out of York University in Ontario links knowing two languages with a delay in the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.

The research, published last Friday in "Trends in Cognitive Sciences", peeks into the minds of bilingual adults and looks at how bilingualism combats degenerative mental diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia -- and the results are promising. According to Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the lead researcher in the study, bilingual adults were found to have a greater cognitive reserve as they got older that allows the mind to run longer and more smoothly.

"It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank," said Bialystok in an interview with the Guardian.

By knowing two languages, the brain's regions that govern general attention and cognitive control are more stimulated, compared with someone who is monolingual. The anticipation of having to speak one of two language at any given time forces the brain to run continually, and results in an experience that helps avoid a mental conflict between languages.


Yannis Asimakopoulos
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But learning a second language, particularly as an adult, can be difficult. A language's difficulty varies by its similarity to a person's native tongue. Languages close to English like French, Italian and Spanish can take anywhere from 23 to 24 weeks to achieve proficiency, while a language that bears little resemblance to English, like Arabic, means a commitment as long as 88 weeks.

According to Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, a Spanish and linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, there are two big factors that affect a person's success for mastering a second language. While some are controllable, others, like your physiology, aren't.

"Brain-wise, there are big changes around the age of six and then there's a decline around puberty," said Pérez-Leroux when asked about barriers facing learning new language learners. She added that a person's social network can also influence success with another language.

Things like a person's network of speakers, their desire to consume the language, and their willingness to reach out and seek new affiliations also come into play, according to Pérez-Leroux. She noted, "the more you hear the second language, the more you'll experience it and the more you will learn."

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