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The benefits of bilingualism: It’s good for the brain

It goes without saying that at London Translations, we are pretty passionate about languages and the high-quality translation and interpreting of them. Now, new research has only highlighted what we’d like to say we knew all along – that being able to speak two languages is, in fact, good for the brain.

More specifically, findings published in the Annals of Neurology – a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society – revealed that bilingualism can have a positive effect on a person’s cognitive abilities later in life and on the brain as it ages.

Rather, those who were able to speak two or more languages when they were older had better cognitive abilities than would be expected from baseline, with the most notable effects recorded for general intelligence and reading abilities.

Typically, a person’s cerebral function declines as they get older. This is a natural – and regrettable – part of becoming more elderly. However, this research from scientists at the University of Edinburgh suggests the power of a second language can help to slow down this process.

Accordingly, there may be something to be said for the value of bilingualism for those at risk of degenerative conditions, such as dementia, although – being language professionals and not scientists – we wouldn’t wish to speculate!

However, fortunately for all our talented translators and interpreters, the findings were even found to be the case for those who learnt their second language when they were older, meaning it is not only people who have had the privilege of being raised from birth as a bilingual speaker who may benefit from the positive effect a second language could have on their brain.

Nevertheless, it’s not quite as simple as saying ‘learn another language and your brain will, by definition, thank you’. It has not yet been established whether people improve their cognitive prospects by learning another language or those who have better cognitive functions to start with are the ones who pick up a second language. As the authors say, ruling out what is called ‘reverse causality’ is tricky in this instance.

However, lead author Dr Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the institution said that wasn’t the aim of this study, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council (MRC). These scientists sought to find out whether speaking a second language came hand in hand with improved cognitive function later in life and proved there was indeed a correlation between the two.

In order to reach their conclusion, the investigators needed to consider data that had been accumulated over an extended period of time. They took the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 which contained 835 native English speakers born and living in Edinburgh who were asked to complete an intelligence test at the age of 11. Then, they were asked to sit another similar test when they were in their early 70s, which fell between 2008 and 2010, by which time 262 of them were able to speak more than one language.

Dr Bak described the results of their study as being “of considerable practical relevance”, especially given that so many people all over the world decide to hone their linguistic abilities when they are older.

Meanwhile, Dr Alvaro Pascual-Leone – an associate editor for Annals of Neurology and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts – described the work as “an important first step” in understanding the effect that language learning can have on the brain.

While the scientists continue to do more research into how being bilingual can alleviate cognitive decline, it will be interesting to see how many – if any – people decide to pick up another language in a bid to safeguard their valuable grey matter.

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