No Matter How You Say It, Language Learning Helps the Brain

The German-Swiss author and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse said that every new language a person learns generates new ideas, and many people study languages to broaden their horizons. A new study now suggests that language learning has an even more beneficial effect - it protects the brain against decay and the effects of aging.

The study, by Tel Aviv University's Herczeg Institute for Aging, examined the link between multilingual skills and people's mental state in old age. It was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

"We found that multilingual people's cognitive state was better," said Dr. Gitit Kave, a researcher into the link between language and aging.

"Studying affects the brain. The more the brain is used, the more pathways are created between brain areas, increasing resistance to decay. Forcing the brain to learn languages builds a larger 'cognitive reserve' to carry into old age. It gives the brain flexibility that delays the effects of aging," says Kave.

The study's findings are based on data gathered in 1989 by Professor Baruch Modan from a representative sample of Israelis aged 75 to 95.

"Each interviewee was asked how many languages he spoke, what his mother tongue was and which language he spoke best," says Kave.

The interviewees were given a cognitive function test to gauge their lucidity, memory and understanding.

All the participants in the study spoke more than one language. The researchers divided them into three groups according to the number of languages they spoke - bilingual, trilingual and multilingual. A comparison of the people's language skills with the test results indicated that the more languages a person spoke the better was his cognitive state.

Nitza Eyal, Aviva Sorek and Yaska Cohen Mansfield contributed to the study.

In the research, even people who had no formal education but spoke several languages were on average more lucid the more languages they spoke.

"You'd think educated people would have the highest mental fortitude," says Kave. "But we found that language had the most significant effects on uneducated people. We learn from everything but not everything can protect us from mental deterioration."