To keep our muscles strong as we age, doctors recommend that we practice sport or do exercises with weights at the gym. To keep our heart and lungs in working order we get breathing by running or swimming. Staying in muscular and cardiovascular shape as we get older is important in order to prevent ailments of our joints, hearts, and lungs; so it should come as no surprise that staying in mental shape is important for preventing deteriorating mental diseases. To keep our brain working, doctors recommend the use of more than one language.
Linguistic researchers work on the assumption that speaking two languages creates a type of internal competition between the two languages; managing this situation enhances our brain’s executive control functions – a system of command that directs our attention process in tasks such as planning and problem solving, as well as other types of mentally-demanding activities. Have you ever stopped to ask someone for directions while driving and then had to repeat to yourself like a mantra “Left at the third stoplight. Right after McDonald’s, then first left” until you arrived at your destination in order to make sure that the directions didn’t slip away from your mind? You are consciously employing your executive function to keep your attention focused and ignore distractions.
Speaking more than one language keeps this kind of executive control in constant activity, and so it seems that bilingualism may mitigate cognitive decline in old age and even postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It has been shown that while aging has little effect on vocabulary levels, general world knowledge, and language use, older adults show difficulty in ignoring irrelevant stimuli and attending selectively to important aspects of the environment during perceptual processing. This is where bilingualism steps in– it strengthens and develops precisely those control functions which are apt to weaken as we age.
Furthermore, it appears that the more languages spoken, the better. A study by the Public Research Center for Health (CRP-Santé) in Luxembourg has indicated that speaking more languages has a positive benefit on memory in aging. The study, involving 230 men and women with an average age of 73 who had spoken or currently spoke two to seven languages, showed that “speaking more than two languages has a protective effect on memory in seniors who practice foreign languages over their lifetime or at the time of the study,” according to the author of the study, Magali Perquin, PhD.
We achieve the greatest benefits to our overall health when we enact fundamental changes in our lifestyle. Pumping weights is a great way to keep our muscles working, but when we sit up straight in our chairs every day, walk with broad shoulders and a straight back, and properly flex our legs every time we have to bend down, we engage our muscles correctly over a longer periods of time and thus multiply the benefits of our gym workout exponentially. Learning to speak another language or rather- learning to think in another language- creates a process within us which is in operation even when we aren’t aware of it. To a certain extent bilinguals even have to switch between their languages when they dream! There is no better way to prepare our brains for the challenges of aging than by teaching it to work in another language.
If you’re interested in learning a foreign language, please learn about The Boston Language Institute’s foreign language programs.