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Culture — Language Learning and the Brain

by Brandi

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February 19th, 2010

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This week we will discuss the benefits of learning a new language.

A few weeks back, my wife was reading the local newspaper and discovered a very interesting article about language learning and its effects on the brain. The local paper here quoted a story from the “Toronto Globe and Mail” written by “Andre Picard.” I found it a very interesting read and wanted to pass it on to you.

The title is: “Bilingual adults may stay sharper longer as they age” New study links linguistic facility and health of brain.

Being fluently bilingual may help to stave off the forgetfulness and inattention often associated with aging according to a new study.

Researchers at York University in Toronto found that a group of older people who had spoken two languages concurrently their whole lives fared markedly better on tests that measure cognitive function.

In particular, the bilinguals scored highest on measures of so-called fluid intelligence–the ability to focus one’s attention and to respond to rapidly changing tasks–said Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York.

The findings published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, suggest that being bilingual may offer some protection against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The research is the latest to make a link between linguistic facility and the health of the brain.

It also adds to a growing body of evidence on the physiological and psychological benefits of bilingualism, though most of that research has been done on children. The studies have shown that children who speak two languages or more tend to be more creative, better at problem-solving and score better on literacy tests.

Bilingual children also tend to have an economic advantage as they mature because they have better job prospects.

Research has shown that, when bilingual children process information, both languages remain active, even though they use one language at a time. To ensure that the languages remain separate, the brain develops mechanisms to allow the speaker to block out instructions from the unwanted language.

Bialystok’s new research suggests that this ability to compartmentalize and focus carries over the other functions, and that’s why bilinguals remain sharper as they age.

The research involved a total of 154 bilingual and monolingual adult university graduates living in Toronto and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The bilingual participants all spoke Tamil and English fluently and used both languages concurrently on a daily basis since childhood.

The subjects underwent a common psychological test known as the Simon task. Using flashing squares on a computer screen, the test can measure reaction time in a variety of ways.

On the Simon test, the older bilingual adults (age 60-88) did far better than their monolingual counterparts.

Moral of the Story: Learning the Spanish language will not only gives you fulfillment, personal enrichment and better job prospects, but according to this research, it also will help keep your brain healthy later in life. I had a grandfather who was an active learner his entire life; he was an inspiration to me. At the age 93, he wanted me to help him continue to learn Spanish. His body by that time was pretty worn out, but his mind was sharp as a tack. He is one of the people who inspired me to develop and create Spanish courses that are effective and help others to actually learn to speak and communicate.

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