The Best Reason To Learn English?

Feel too old or too stupid to learn a second language? 

Discover why you should try...

Remember to double-click any word in the article to see the definition
Research shows that people who study a second language develop higher IQ and better mental skills during all their lives than people who speak only one language. Also, learning a second language protects significantly against Alzheimer’s.
A study that followed hundreds of people for decades is the strongest evidence yet that speaking an extra language slows the mental decline of getting older. The benefits are the same independent of your IQ and even if you learn your second language as an adult.
Previous studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease who are fluent in two languages show symptoms of the condition four or five years later than people who are monolingual, and that people who are bilingual perform better in many cognitive tests. However, it has been difficult to separate the effects of knowing multiple languages from other factors. For example, some studies have compared bilingual immigrants and their families with monolingual natives.
To resolve the issue, Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh, UK, and his colleagues turned to the Lothian Birth Cohort study, which studied about 1100 people born in 1936 in and around Edinburgh in Scotland. All were monolingual English speakers at age 11, when they took a selection of cognitive tests.
The study wasn’t designed to investigate language effects. But 853 of the participants were contacted when they were in their early 70s. Almost one-third, or 262, of them had learned to speak at least one additional language and that 65 had learned it after the age of 18.
As a result, the study provides a unique research opportunity, says Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, Canada, who was first to discover that being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. “You have this identical sample of Scottish kids – all monolingual – and you let them go and have their lives and see what happens,” she says.

Mental workout

Bak’s team gave the participants cognitive tests and compared these with the test scores from when they were 11. Those who had learned an extra language performed better in the cognitive tests in their 70s than would be predicted from their earlier scores, indicating that the extra language itself is beneficial.
The strongest effects were on general intelligence and reading. This suggests that the benefits are because of the extra language, because if was simply intelligence, you would expect there to be an increase for all skills. “For the first time we can understand the chicken and egg question,” says Bak. His team found that the benefits to the ageing brain were comparable to physical activity, or not smoking.
Bialystok says the cognitive benefits seen in the Scottish study agree with her own work on bilingual people with Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that the same beneficial processes are at work.
How could languages protect the brain? A leading theory is that people who speak several languages constantly activate all the available words in each one before choosing the appropriate expression, giving them a mental workout.

Adapted from New Scientist
By Catherine de Lange