The Health Benefits of Multilingualism: “All Greek” to Most People

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When I stepped off the plane onto the steaming Athens tarmac, I assumed at 23 that I was simply too old to learn and retain another language. But two years in Greece—and science—proved me wrong.

Plunked down in a Greek village north of Athens, I quickly learned that immersion is the best medicine for English. As with many languages, the first words I picked up were swear words. But soon I graduated to bigger and better words, words like: kokkino (red), psomi (bread), thalassa (ocean).

I learned the alphabet and made Greek friends. I picked up more words: skoularakia (earrings), anamasima (rehash) and anthektikos (resistant). Soon, I was bargaining in Greek for posters of Egypt at the flea market in Monastiraki. My swear words came in handy.

I was pleasantly perplexed at how I’d been able to pick up the language so easily and quickly. Linguists, however, aren’t surprised.

Though many people repeat the misconception that learning a language in adolescence is easier, it might simply be a different style of learning, said Kara Morgan-Short, professor of Spanish and linguistics at The University of Illinois-Chicago. She said that language learning mechanisms are currently being debated. Scientists are studying whether adults learn languages in the same way as children, or if adults must learn language as they learn other general skills, such as riding a bike.

“What is clear is that acquisition for children and for adults must occur in such a manner that a learner is able to make an association between a form in the language and what it means,” the linguist said. “In other words, rote memorization is not effective. “

Thanks to technology and global communications, the world is shrinking and so are language barriers. Researchers have a theory, and it goes something like this: languages act as foundations for cultures. By switching languages, we shift our alignment and access to cultures.

Put quite simply, decoupling language and culture is hard to do, and knowing a language makes a culture more “real.”

I asked Viorica Marian, professor of communication sciences at Northwestern University, if that meant languages encompassed different worlds.  She said that research—including her own—indicates that it does, to some degree.

“Language is sort of a vehicle for culture. When you use a language, you activate the entire frame of reference,” she said.

Marian has spent years testing Russian, Spanish and Mandarin speakers on memory recall. She and her team found that memories were almost always more vividly recalled in the language in which they were formed.

Common knowledge about language: immersion is beneficial and it becomes easier to learn languages after you know two. But the health benefits of bilingualism?

Scientists at York University in Canada say it’s so. Evaluating patients who spoke one language versus patients who spoke two, research showed that bilinguals were mentally sharper. In 2007, more research out of York University showed that the onset of dementia occurred roughly four years later for those patients who spoke two languages daily.

Wilson Zhang, 24, is one of nearly 128,000 Chinese students studying in the United States. Zhang, from Suzhou, moved to the U.S. in 2009 and is a Ph.D. candidate in transportation at Northwestern University. He said initially that he struggled with thinking and speaking in English, but has since gotten better at inhibiting.

“Chinese has different grammar, structure and logic from English, so thinking in English means I try to think everything with English structure and logic,” Zhang said. “I might concentrate more when I force myself to think in English.”

Marian isn’t surprised. The linguist, who is studying the consequences of bilingualism with a grant from the National Institute of Health, said bilinguals improve their executive function and cognitive control in the exercise of speaking two languages.

“Because bilinguals always have to select one language over another—have to inhibit their native language—they become much better at inhibiting irrelevant information. It might seem like a trivial thing, but it is very important.”

- blog by Katherine LaGrave, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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