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Facility In Language And Resilience To Dementia



Facility in language and resilience to dementia

Many industrialized nations across the globe have begun to incorporate secondary language instruction, typically in English, for primary-school children.  This state-sponsored bilingualism has proven extremely effective at facilitating cognitive flexibility and enhancing the possibilities for future careers.  Yet the advantages of learning a second language are not entirely intellectual.  A new study by Ontario’s York University suggests that persons who have studied a second language extensively are less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, two conditions that rapidly degrade the brain tissue responsible for creating new memories.


This study, authored by Dr. Ellen Bialystok and published within the psychology journal “Trends in Cognitive Sciences”, suggests that adults who have learned more than one language have greater cognitive capacities and better brain functionality as they age.  Dr. Bialystok, speaking with The Guardian, referenced an automobiles reserve tank in comparison to the human brain.  Running out of gas, claims Bialystok, does not cause the car to fail if you maintain a reserve tank.


Learning a secondary or tertiary language provides the brain with the equivalent of a brisk workout.  Memory centers within the brain run at a higher capacity when it is necessary to switch between one language and another.  Attention span is heightened while both short-term and long-term memory receives more energy.  The need to switch in and out of two (or more) separate languages necessitates greater effort by the human mind in order to prevent mental gridlock.


Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease progresses when plaques within the brain spread over the neurons responsible for developing memory.  While existing studies have shown that mental activities such as crosswords and word puzzles are capable of delaying the onset of mental disease, Dr. Bialystok’s research offers new insight into the power of language.  Not only do bilingual persons earn more money and advance further in their careers, but they also are capable of maintaining strong mental health throughout their lives.


While it is easier for a child to learn a new language than an adult, the study suggests that an adult may receive more mental benefits of language learning than a child due to the increased difficulty.  While a child between the ages of six and twelve has some of the most efficient cognitive systems needed to learn a new language, adults may need between six months and two years to develop proficiency in a second or third language.  This additional time and effort put your brain through the equivalent of running a marathon.


Yet age is not the only factor in language delaying mental degradation.  A new language is most effective when there are complex social circles that it must be spoken in, hence why complete assimilation in a foreign nation remains the best method.  Other factors such as the number of speakers, the interest in learning language, and interaction with new speakers will all create the mental experience needed to strengthen the cognitive process.