Research shows that learning a second language appears to stave off age-related mental decline, but why is this and can you take advantage of this fact even in later years?
A recently published study by Scottish researchers adds to a growing body of evidence that people who are proficient in two or more languages tend to hold on to their mental faculties and display greater intelligence in later life than those who only know one language.
A strength of this study, which is published this month in the Annals of Neurology, is the timescale over which it observed participants. The researchers examined data on a group of 853 people who underwent intelligence tests in 1947 when they were 11 and also recently when they reached their 70s. In total, nearly a third of the sample reported having a second language. The researchers then asked when they had acquired that language and how often they used it.
They found that people who spoke two languages actually performed significantly better in intelligence tests than what could have been predicted from their intelligence tests at age 11 using a baseline of how people who didn’t have those languages scored. The most impressive outcomes were seen in overall intelligence and also in reading.
The study didn’t test for signs of possible cognitive impairment or dementia, so we cannot draw direct conclusions as to whether being bilingual can stave off those function-eroding diseases, though there is research to suggest that stimulating things like learning another language may protect against dementia. As with most research in this field, we’re looking at association rather than causation, but a number of researchers have remarked on a seeming connection between being bilingual and later life mental health.
Why Does Being Bilingual Appear to Fight Mental Decline?
Again, this is a topic that is still being explored by scientists, but a consensus seems to have emerged that it’s largely about keeping the brain active.
Tests have demonstrated that bilingualism forces the brain to switch between many different regions, recruiting skills that so-called monolingual people will not use when they speak because the brain is very efficient with its primary language. By exciting many different areas, the brain is forced to use more of its executive function skills, in this case particularly the brain’s ability to reference past events (for example, what a word means) with present situations in order to figure out what is going on and find an appropriate response.
Obviously, one of the main qualities of dementia is an erosion in the ability to remember situations and people. Researchers theorize that bilingualism along with other forms of mental exercise can help to at least put off developing dementia for longer because it keeps those areas of the brain active and their connections strong.
But at What Age is it Too Late to Learn Another Language?
Some research has shown that learning a second language at a young age and using throughout our lives is optimal if we want to set ourselves up for better cognitive function in later life. The earlier the better might be the short answer to this question, but it is not an absolute.
Research has also demonstrated that the brain possesses a formidable ability, whatever our age, to begin changing itself in relatively short spaces of time, something we call neuroplasticity. To be clear, if you start learning a second language in later life, it’s unlikely you will reap the same benefits as someone who learned it during their formative years, but because learning a second language is incredibly demanding for the brain, this increased stimulation will be beneficial and, in line with tests conducted during other research, it seems there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to improve your health outlook.
With that in mind, why not get started on learning a language right now.
How to Learn a Language for Free Using the Internet
There are a number of ways to learn a language for free by using the Internet.
For beginners, one easy method might be to find a YouTube channel that provides language lessons. Look for ones that demonstrate the language you are learning with pictures and helpful mnemonics in order to make the process simple, fun and rewarding. To get you started, here is a collection of Spanish learning channels.
If you already have a grasp of the basics of a second language but want to push yourself, there are also a variety of browser extensions that modify your browser so that you can browse in a different language. You can of course do this by modifying your browser settings, but the extensions can allow you to check words and meanings easily, and can be toggled on and off with just the press of a button.
Another way is to use websites that specifically teach language learning. The advantage of this is many of them offer apps to download to your phone so you can take your learning on the road with you.
These are just a handful of suggestions to get you started, but there are many courses and websites available so you can start learning that second language today. If you’d like more resources for learning a second language, please click here.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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