A little more than two years ago, I highlighted the health benefits of bilingualism when researchers at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital found that people who speak more than one language have twice as much brain damage as unilingual people BEFORE they show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Tom Schweizer, a neuroscientist who headed the research, said: “This is unheard of. No medicine comes close to DELAYING the onset of symptoms and now we have the evidence to prove this at the neuroanatomical level.” [Capitalization mine for emphasis.]
The Toronto Star reported that researchers compared a group of fluently bilingual patients to a group of unilingual patients who had been diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease and had SIMILAR levels of education and cognitive skills, such as attention, memory, planning and organization.
Bilingualism had been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by UP TO FIVE YEARS in observational studies, but this was the first time that PHYSICAL EVIDENCE had been found through CT scans.
Bilingual people keep their brains active all the time and this may contribute to their overall brain health, said Schweizer. He also noted that because bilingual people constantly switch from one language to another or suppress one language to speak in the other, their brains may be better prepared to compensate through enhanced brain networks or pathways when Alzheimer’s sets in.
THIS month, the prestigious New Scientist magazine reported that Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh, UK, wanted to find out if this delay in the onset of dementia was only because of being fluent in two languages or whether education or immigration status could be the cause.
His team compared the age dementia symptoms that appeared in about 650 natives in the south Indian city of Hyderabad over a six-year period. About half spoke at least two languages. This group’s symptoms were found to start on average FOUR AND A HALF YEARS LATER than those in individuals who spoke only one language.
The article noted that the same pattern appeared for Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal and vascular dementia. The results were the same for a group of ILLITERATE people which suggested that education doesn’t matter when it comes to benefitting from bilingualism. That is what the above-mentioned Toronto research also found.
The article pointed out what was mentioned in the Toronto research report also: that a leading theory about the delay in the onset of dementia is that it involves the constant suppression of one language and switching between the two.
Interestingly, the team saw NO ADDITIONAL benefits of speaking more than two languages.
Now Bak is studying whether people who learn languages at an older age get the same benefits as those who grow up bilingual.
AND this brings me to the issue of not forgetting your mother tongue if it’s not English or French in Canada – or learning a second language if you know only English or French.
This is what I had pointed out two years ago when writing about this topic: “I always encourage people to learn more languages – not only because I find them interesting, but also because of a host of benefits ranging from opening up a new culture to you to getting jobs.
“When I was learning French in India, I found that it actually improved my English vocabulary as well as my understanding of the English language because so many words and expressions come from that language. On the other hand, my vocabulary in English helped me improve my French vocabulary tremendously because so many words were almost the same; for instance, meditate and its synonyms ruminate and cogitate are mediter, ruminer and cogiter, respectively, in French.
“Learning Korean nowadays has opened up a whole new culture to me, besides instant bonding with Koreans when I use a few sentences or words.
“Kids from South Asian countries and those born here should make a special effort in remembering or learning their mother tongue whether it be Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali or whatever. It also helps in better communication with parents who are not fluent in English.
“On the other hand, everybody in Canada MUST learn English (or French, if you are living in Quebec or some French-speaking community) no matter how old they are to feel a part of society and also because if you are alone in an emergency, it could actually save your life.”
AND – I almost forgot – the HUMOROUS part of learning more than one language – the jokes that you can only understand and enjoy if you know those languages.
In India, we were always joking about words that sound the same or almost the same in two different languages but have different meanings – and I am NOT talking about dirty jokes, okay! These were in either English and an Indian language, or a combination of two Indian languages.
Here’s one that combines English and French – see if you get it:
Q: What happened to three cats in a boat on a river in France?
A: un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq!
That is ‘one, two, three, four, five’ in French. Four is ‘quatre’ and sounds somewhat like ‘cat’ while ‘cinq’ is five and sounds like ‘sank.’
So: ‘one, two, three cat(s) sank’!
AND just in case you missed this humorous part of a write-up I did on racism and multiculturalism in October, let me repeat it here as it involves bilingualism – or the lack of it:
A white woman working with South Asians in Surrey near our office told me that she felt the guys were always talking about her as she could hear her name – CANDY – come up quite often. But whenever she would ask the person who had supposedly mentioned her name in his or her conversation, they would look puzzled and deny it.
That got me thinking and it finally struck me that she was getting confused with the Punjabi phrases “WO KI KENHDI?” (“What does she say?”) or “WO KENHDI” (“She says”).
So we had a good laugh – and now I call her “KI CANDY”!