There’s an old adage that goes: “You’re never too old to learn.” and recent studies show that learning at any age may actually improve your brain function, too, especially when it comes to learning a foreign language.
According to researchers, teensthat are adept in speaking two languages perform better on attention tests and concentrate better than those who spoke only one language, no matter if they learn that second language as babies or teens.
The research, led by Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer at Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, suggests that this positive effect can extend to people who learn a language in their middle-aged years into retirement. Bak, along with his colleague Dr. Suvarna Alladi of Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India, discovered that,compared to those who spoke only one language, dementia was delayed by about four years for peoplein India who spoke more than one language from a very young age.
This new study posits thatyoung adults who speak Arabic, for example, along with their mother language perform better when it comes to ignoring extraneous stimuli and focus more on important information. According to Bak, one plausible reason for this skill is that switching back and forth between two languages may actually train the brain to recognize auditory information better, improving the brain’s functioning in what is known as auditory attention – basically the way the brain allows us to concentrate – thus allowing one to extract more information from a lecture, for example. The interesting thing here, however, is that many drugs created to lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s disease work by attempting to improve this very same attention mechanism.
Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a professor and bilingualism expert at York University in Toronto, is optimistic about this study. saying that the research “… adds to the body of literature trying to figure out exactly the conditions under which bilingualism improves cognitive function.” She added, “Nothing I can think of is more difficult or more cognitively engaging than trying to learn another language. It is an excellent activity to maintain cognitive function.”
Bak isn’t finished with this research, however. In June of this year, he published a second study where 853 participants whose intelligence was first tested in 1947 and then retested between 2008 and 2010. to determine if the positive effects of bilingualism on cognition could actually be the other way around: that people who have better cognitive functions are more likely to learn foreign languages. Undeniably, he found that bilingual people of an advanced age performed better than expected on intelligence tests, and showed less relative cognitive decline compared to monolingual people.
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