I lived in Stockholm for two years after college and doggedly learned Swedish, even though most Swedes speak beautiful English. Not only could I communicate better with then-tiny (now giant) Swedish nephews, turns out it was a good move for my brain. Learning a second language – even as an adult – helps protect the brain from aging, says a new study published in the Annals of Neurology.
“Learning a language later in life is a challenge but is very, very good for the brain,” says lead author Thomas Bak, of the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
A number of earlier studies by Bak and others have found knowing a second language benefits the brain later in life, but some questioned whether it was just that smarter kids were more likely not only to learn a second language but also to become better educated, which also seems to help preserve brain function.
To control for that possibility, the researchers studied 835 people who took an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 as part of a group called the Lothian Birth Cohort. The researchers retested the group when they were in their early 70s for verbal skills, vocabulary, reading and other cognitive abilities. Those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better mental abilities – especially in general intelligence and reading – than would be expected at their age. Knowing three languages was even better than knowing two, the study found.
A study last year by Bak and colleagues found learning a second language delayed the onset of dementia by four to five years. (Bak, who incidentally isn’t Scottish but Polish, went to medical school in Germany, speaks Spanish with his wife and converses in Polish with his small daughter. He admits he has a “vested interest” in this subject.)
So what is it about struggling through those irregular verbs that helps the brain?
Bak, who is a neurologist, says people who learn a second language are forced to focus on the language that they are speaking, “otherwise, it would be a complete jumble.” The concentration required to switch back and forth between languages is excellent mental training, he said. The more you push your brain to learn the second – or third – language, the better it is. Just as you improve fitness by moving from walking to jogging, you can improve your brain health by challenging the brain to conjugate those verbs. In addition, he suspects, because “learning a second language gives people a new way of looking at the world,” such cultural broadening helps keep aging brains spry and nimble.
Bak adds that being completely fluent in the language isn’t important. Just being able to carry on a simple conversation seems to be enough to strengthen your mental capacity. That’s more good news for me, since I excel in what I call “cocktail party Swedish” but have trouble as soon as I need to discuss in detail, for example, the science behind the latest study on brain health.
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