By: K. Ong
In an increasingly connected world where the Web makes large interactive caches of information available free, there seems to be no excuse for not learning something new every day. And if you have put off mastering that foreign language for years, consider rethinking your decision, because learning a second language poses major benefits to your mental health and well-being. Here are the most unexpected benefits of becoming bilingual.
Protection against Alzheimer’s disease
Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium explored bilingualism’s protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease. In a paper entitled, “Bilingualism Delays Clinical Manifestation of Alzheimer’s Disease,” which was published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, it was revealed that the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms is delayed by about four to five years among bilinguals compared to monolinguals.
This finding is consistent with those in earlier studies that confirmed how new language acquisition could provide crucial exercise for the gray cells of the brain. The mental workout helps prevent the brain’s gray matter from degenerating, thus slowing cognitive decline in old age. In fact, people who speak two languages possess more gray matter than monolinguals, according to the study, “Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory,” published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Protection against dementia
Aside from delaying the onset of Alzherimer’s among susceptible individuals, bilingualism also protects against dementia, according to the study, “Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain,” which was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. For bilinguals, the onset of dementia symptoms is delayed by years compared to their monolingual counterparts.
Additionally, a large-scale study on the same subject revealed that bilingualism retards the onset of three types of dementia: frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. The beneficial effects were independent of gender, occupation, and education, as well as whether a person lives in an urban or a rural location, according to the paper entitled, “Bilingualism Delays Age at Onset of Dementia, Independent of Education and Immigration Status” that was published in the journal Neurology. No additional benefits were found among those who speak more than two languages.
Refines the auditory nervous system
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed how the auditory nervous system of bilinguals is more fine-tuned than their monolingual counterparts. The more refined auditory system of bilinguals aids in effectively managing linguistic input, which in turn improves working memory and attention.
Improves attentional control
Likely owing to the heightened level of attention produced by the enhanced receptiveness to linguistic input, bilingualism is also associated with better attentional control, according to a study published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom suggested the lifelong practice of using two languages seems to improve a bilingual’s ability to maintain attention.
Increases cognitive flexibility
A study that was jointly funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation intuited that monolingual seniors expend more energy—and are therefore less efficient—when doing tasks related to cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a measure of how well or how badly a person adapts to unexpected or unfamiliar situations. The heightened cognitive flexibility demonstrated by bilingual seniors may have something to do with the lifelong mental stimulation generated by repetitively switching between two languages. This finding was reinforced by a similar study, “Interference Control at the Response Level: Functional Networks Reveal Higher Efficiency in the Bilingual Brain,” whose results were published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
The bottom line
You might want to begin your forays into second-language acquisition by keeping in mind these useful tips.