A recent study has found that no matter the level of fluency, speaking at two languages is better than speaking just one in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in seniors. This advantage can push onset back by an average of four and a half years. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., with over five million citizens living with the disease, two-thirds of them women. Dementia claims one out of three senior lives.
The study, published in Neurology in November last year, adds that education and immigrant status has no effect on this delay. The use of two or more languages cause many parts of the brain to be stimulated throughout life, according to Dr. Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh, the study’s author. He added that bilingualism is to the brain what swimming is to muscles of the body, a workout that benefits many parts.
Brian Gold, an American neuroscientist from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington, also provided evidence last year that older bilingual brains seemed better off than those that were monolingual. He observed that bilingual seniors performed better at attention-switching tasks, almost as well as young adults.
In 2011, as the U.S. population was close to 300 million, approximately 72 percent of citizens over the age of five spoke only English in their households. Twenty-one percent of Americans at that time spoke another language at home. Spanish was and still is the most common other language, and most bilinguals here said that they spoke English “very well.”
Chinese was the second most common language, followed by Tagalog and Vietnamese. U.S. cities Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are where most bilingual Americans can be found. Other languages, such as German and Italian, have declining numbers of speakers, due to changes in countries of origin for immigrants coming to the U.S. over the years.
Outside the U.S., bilingualism is more common. Some people speak English creoles colloquially, where foreign words and phrases are peppered into speech. Examples are Jamaican Patois, Spanglish, Manglish in Malaysia, and Singlish in Singapore. Canada, Finland, Cameroon and Afghanistan are some countries where two languages are spoken officially. Switzerland is one example of a multilingual country, with regions where French, German, Italian or Romansh is the main language. In many curricula, learning one other language at school is encouraged as communicating could be much easier amongst people.
Other benefits of bilingualism include employment opportunities, with more openings requesting bilingual candidates, English and Spanish being the most common combination. Depending on the other language, there could be chances to teach English abroad. One could also be able to explore another culture just a little more deeply, for many things can be lost in translation.
Some languages are best learnt early on in life, though second-language acquisition ease or difficulty can depend on one’s native or mother tongue, and how similar or different the second language is to the first. The U.S. Foreign Service ranks Japanese as the hardest language to learn, especially because of the language’s complex writing system. Other tough ones to grasp are Arabic and Mandarin. Another obstacle is the sounds of the new language needing special attention in pronunciation. Some sounds are foreign and hard to replicate.
It is beneficial for anyone to have knowledge of at least two languages instead of just one. With how much smaller the world is getting every day, one never knows when being able to speak another tongue may come in handy. Even Uruguay President Jose Mujica said that the U.S. would have to become a bilingual country in a visit to the White House last month.
By Sibylla Chipaziwa