Learning second language can delay ageing of the brain, say scientists

One theory is that elderly bilinguals have greater 'cognitive reserves' which delay the onset of ageing in the brain

Learning a second language can boost thinking skills, improve mental agility and delay the ageing of the brain, according to scientists who believe that speaking minority languages should be positively encouraged in schools and universities.

Studies have found that children and adults who learn or speak another language benefit from the extra effort it takes to handle two sets of vocabularies and rules of grammar.

“Fewer parents speak minority languages to their children because of the perceived lack of usefulness. Many people still think that a minority language makes children confused and puts them at a disadvantage at school,” said Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh.

“These feelings clash with much research on bilingualism, which shows instead that when there are differences between monolingual and bilingual children, these are almost invariably in favour of blinguals,” Dr Sorace said.

“Bilingual children tend to have enhanced language abilities, a better understanding of others’ point of view, and more mental flexibility in dealing with complex situations,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Many of the same improvements are seen in adults who speak two languages, or are learning a second language. A study of retired people doing an intensive language course of five hours a day on the Isle of Skye to learn Gaelic found improvements in other mental abilities.

“They didn’t know a word of Gaelic, so we tested them beforehand and after a week of a very intensive course. And sure enough, when we compared them with other active retired people who were doing a course on something else, we found in those who were doing a language course, the brain responds,” Dr Sorace said.

Other studies have shown that certain types of dementia seen in the elderly appear to show symptoms on average about four or five years later in bilingual people compared with people who speak only one language, she said. One theory is that elderly bilinguals have greater “cognitive reserves” which delay the onset of ageing in the brain.

Dr Sorace said that learning a second language should be made compulsory again in schools and even universities. “Languages should be a requirement for any kind of degree ... whether people are doing classics or literature or a science degree,” she said.