There are many ways in which speaking another language may contribute to a well-lived life. You can talk to a whole lot more of Earth’s inhabitants, for one thing. You can also enjoy books, music and films in their original language, and throw a few more “skills” onto your résumé. Now add to that list the findings of new studies suggesting that speaking multiple languages may also help protect cognitive health over the long term.
In a study of 450 Alzheimer’s patients, led by Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, those who were bilingual for most of their lives were able to stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s for four to five years longer than people who spoke only one language. Although the ability to speak two languages didn’t prevent the memory-robbing disease, it did delay its symptoms from appearing.
(More on Time.com: At Last, Some Hope for Preventing the Slow Mental Decline of Alzheimer’s)
Why? The key may be something called cognitive reserve. Learning and speaking two languages requires the brain to work harder, which helps keep it nimble. It’s the same use-it-or-lose-it reasoning that underlies advice to do crossword puzzles and to continue to learn new skills throughout life — the idea is to help the brain create and maintain more neural connections. Brains with more cognitive reserve — and therefore more flexibility and executive control — are thought to be better able to compensate for the loss of neurons associated with Alzheimer’s.
(More on Time.com: A Blood Test To Predict Alzheimer’s)
Another recent study backed up the connection between bilingualism and executive control. The study, which involved babies who were exposed to two languages from birth, found that bilingual infants don’t confuse their two languages because they learn very early to pay attention better, according to the AP:
[University of British Columbia psychologist Janet] Werker tested babies in Spain who were growing up learning both Spanish and Catalan. She showed the babies videos of women speaking languages they’d never heard — English and French — but with the sound off. By measuring the tots’ attention span, Werker concluded that babies could distinguish between English and French simply by watching the speakers’ facial cues. It could have been the different lip shapes.
“It looks like French people are always kissing,” she joked, while the English “th” sound evokes a distinctive lip-in-teeth shape. Whatever the cues, monolingual babies couldn’t tell the difference, Werker said.
Lest bilingual folks start feeling too high and mighty, another new study involving 230 people found that the benefits to memory in elderly adults increased with the number of languages they spoke: those who spoke four or more languages were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems, compared with mere bilinguals. People who spoke three languages were three times less likely to have cognitive problems than people who spoke two. The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Honolulu in April.
(More on Time.com: Have Trouble Paying Bills? Could Be a Sign of Alzheimer’s)
What about those of us who weren’t lucky enough to learn two languages in infancy? Experts say there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. Some of the cognitive benefits of learning another language still apply even when the language is learned in mid-life or later — and even if you never achieve fluency. The idea is just to keep your brain active.
(More on Time.com: Alzheimer’s: Largely a Woman’s Issue)