Speaking English in the office and Hungarian at home, or a childhood spent with your Greek-speaking mother and Portuguese father – whatever the combination of languages, learning more than one from an early age can do the brain a world of good.
In this BBC World Service broadcast, Gaia Vince discovers the many ways that bilingualism can benefit our brain’s function – from delaying Alzheimer’s disease symptoms to improving concentration and multi-tasking ability.
In her 2010 study Delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, Professor Ellen Bialystock from York University in Toronto found that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be postponed by up to 4-5 years in people who have been bilingual since childhood – and this result transcended cultures and wealth indicators. Several studies in different countries since have confirmed similar results.
Looking at her findings – results from 211 Alzheimer’s disease patients, half of whom were bilingual, and the other half, monolingual – Professor Bialystock could see that although the entire group’s brain scans showed the definite presence of Alzheimer’s disease, bilingual people remained living independently for 4-5 years longer, while their monolingual peers were requiring care. She puts that down to the stronger, more built-up bilingual brain having the ability to compensate for the effects of degeneration, for a longer period of time.
Further research also suggests that having a knowledge of more than one language can help with memory loss caused by a stroke. Doctor Thomas Bak of Northwestern University speaks on the broadcast about his study Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Outcome After Stroke. Of the 608 stroke patients he worked with, twice as many bilingual patients made a full recovery, compared with monolingual patients. Doctor Bak sums it up in saying, “if you speak more than one language, the differences go well beyond language.”
Memory loss can still affect us all – whether your monolingual, bilingual, or lucky enough to be multilingual. If you’ve noticed memory lapses in yourself or someone you know and you’re concerned, take our Memory Quiz and find out about early memory loss and a new clinical research trial.
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