If you learn how to do this, you will add years to your life

Across the vast majority of the United States, we all have the luxury of only needing to understand one language to get by and interact with pretty much anyone we may encounter. From New York to California, and the thousands of miles in between, English is on the top of the lingual food chain. Things aren’t so simple in other areas of the world; for example, Switzerland has four national languages!

So, Americans have never had much reason or motivation to learn a second language. Sure, some of us remember our old Spanish or French lessons from high school, but the vast majority of US citizens speak only English. Unfortunately, according to a new study, this “luxury,” may turn out to be a major mental disadvantage.

Researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design have found that bilingualism, or fluency in a second language, can significantly delay the brain’s aging process. All those skipped 10th-grade French lessons suddenly feel like a big mistake.

To be clear, just knowing “Hola, Como Estas?” doesn’t constitute fluency. One must be able to speak & think clearly and decisively in a second language to enjoy these benefits. More specifically, the research team found that older adults capable of seamlessly “balancing” two languages were much more likely to retain their “executive control” abilities well into their elderly years.

Regarding mental capacities, the term executive control refers to one’s ability to focus, ignore distractions, exercise motor planning, remember relevant information, and control impulses.

Up until now, the majority of research on the effect of bilingualism on cognition has been largely inconclusive. Some studies have found that speaking a second language strengthens the brain’s overall abilities and functioning, but other projects have found little influence. So, the team at SUTD set out to definitively explore the relationship between bilingualism, executive control, and cognitive decline in old age. 

To that end, a group of mentally healthy older adults (ages 60-89) from Singapore was gathered for this research. All of the participants were fluent, to some degree, in both Chinese and English. Each adult was asked to complete a series of four tasks designed to measure six different executive control abilities that typically decline as an individual grows older.

The subsequent results revealed that participants who were able to resist switching between languages while completing a single task performed much better on activities measuring conflict monitoring and goal maintenance executive functions. Essentially, the more comfortable a participant was completing a task entirely in one language, the higher their overall cognitive scores.

The study’s authors believe their findings strongly suggest that active bilingualism can be a powerful lifestyle choice when it comes to maintaining a strong, healthy mind in old age. The key term here, though, is active. Even if one may understand some sentences in another language, if they’re constantly still replying and thinking in their native tongue, the cognitive benefits won’t be the same.

“The effort involved in not switching between languages and “staying” in the target language is more cognitively demanding than switching between languages while actively using both languages. Our study shows that the seniors developed more efficient neural organization at brain regions related to language control, which also overlap with areas involved in executive control,” explains lead principal investigator and corresponding author Associate Professor Yow Wei Quin from SUTD.

It’s often said that the best way to learn a new language is to immerse oneself in it, and this study certainly backs that up. Half-measures and minimal effort will only get you so far in pursuit of true fluency.

Many find it incredibly hard to learn a new language, but if there was ever a time to dedicate yourself to such a task, a global pandemic in which we’re all stuck inside seems like the perfect excuse.

The full study can be found here, published in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.