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Want to Slow Down the Ageing Process?

Learn a new language!

As students of English Language and Culture, most of us are learning a second language as Dutch native speakers. As we grow older, learning a second lan-guage becomes much more difficult, as for the adult brain's “ability to create new neurons and synapses is reduced” (Cooper). However, while we may not be aware of this, the process of learning a second language can actually have a positive effect on our brain. A recent study conducted by Dr. Thomas Bak and his team from the University of Edinburgh revealed that someone who speaks two or more languages or who has learnt the second language at a later stage in life could slow down cognitive decline associated with aging and even delay dementia.

Dr. Bak works for the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. He claims that his study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence (Eurekalert!). To start his research, Bak acquired reliable data from the Lothian Birth Cohort, which is composed of 835 native English speakers who were born and also live in the area of Edin-burgh in Scotland. Dr. Bak gave the participants two intelligence tests at a different time in their lives.

The first test, conducted in 1947, was given to eleven-year-old participants. The second test, conducted between 2008 and 2011, was a re-test which mirrored the first one. It featured the participants who were now in their early 70s. It was reported that 262 of 835 partici-pants were able to speak at least one language other than English and of those 262 bilinguals, 195 learnt the second language before the age of 18, while 67 learnt the second language after that age. The results were quite remarkable: the participants that spoke two or more languages, whether this second language was acquired early or late in life, clearly had better cognitive abilities than the participants who only spoke one language. In addition to this, the cognitive abilities of the multilingual participants in themselves were also remarkably better than what was expected to be the baseline. The strongest effects were indicated in the fields of reading and general intelligence.

It is generally known that it is easier to learn a language at a young age. However, Bak et al.’s research indicates that despite of this rule, it is never too late to attain improvements in general intelligence and also to improve the healthy aging of the brain.

One question, however, remains: why does learning a second language work so effectively? Another research, conducted by bilingualism expert Dr. Viorica Marian and auditory neuroscientist Dr. Nina Kraus from the Northwestern University in the United States, found that those who speak two or more languages have the benefit of training their brain more effectively. This research also pointed out that bilinguals react better to sound. The research was set up with 48 students, some of whom were bilingual and some of whom only spoke English. Both groups had to listen to different sounds in a quiet environment, and both groups were found to react to the stimulus in the same manner. However, as soon as background noise such as chattering was inserted in the background, only the bilingual students could distinguish the necessary information from the unnecessary. Dr. Marian elaborates: “Bilinguals are natural jugglers; the bilingual juggles linguistic input, and it appears, automatically pays greater attention to relevant versus irrelevant sounds. Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved ‘inhibitory control,’ or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others” (Leopold). After finishing the research, Dr. Marian observed: “the advantages we’ve discovered in dual language speakers come automatically simply from knowing and using two languages. It seems that the benefits of bilingualism are particularly powerful and broad, and include attention, inhibition and encoding of sound” (Leopold).

One could perceive the process of learning a second language as a physical workout, but then the workout behaves on a mental level. When the brain is constantly being trained, the mind is more likely to be kept sharp and therefore also kept healthy. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you want to improve your attention and memory, or make personal improvements in critical thinking and decision- making, or simply put, your general intelligence: doubt no longer and start learning a new language. Pronto.

by Rasheed Asraf

Works Cited

Bak, Thomas. “Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging?” Annals of Neurology. 75.6 (2014): 959-963. Print.

Blackwell, Wiley. “Speaking 2 Languages Benefits the Aging Brain.” Eurekalert!.com. Web. 2 June 2014.

Chakravarty, Rajeshwari. “Learning A New Language Can Slow Aging.” Web. 22 Jan.2015.

Cooper, Belle. “The Science of Learning a New Language (and How to Use It).” Web. 20 May 2014.

Leopold, Wendy. “Bilingualism Fine-Tunes Hearing, Enhances Attention.” Web. 30 April 2012.