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Expats, take language learning inspiration from current news
Learn a new language to delay dementia and Alzheimer’s, generate brain growth, and enhance brain function.
It can be easy to stay within the expat community in your new country and continue to speak your native language. There are so many new things to learn, it can be daunting adding a new language to the list.
However, learning the local language, especially as an older adult, is valuable in many ways that are not always obvious.
For expats, becoming bilingual not only keeps your brain active, but it can also increase your social interactions. The Gerontological Society of America notes that socialization can help improve an older individual’s general well-being.
Can I even learn a new language when I’m older?
New studies have found that learning a new language in your adult years is not only possible, but also advisable.
A 2020 language study found that, when learning a language, more brain changes were observed in adolescents, but comprehension appeared to be relatively plastic throughout the lifespan. Neural plasticity means how the brain changes to learn a new skill.
In fact, older individuals learning a new language have an advantage over their younger counterparts, according to Albert Costa, professor of neuroscience at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra. He believes this is mainly because older people have larger vocabularies. As a result, they will learn more words that are included in the language of a native speaker.
Knowing Multiple Languages is the Norm
Many Americans and Brits speak only English because they don’t have the need to learn another language. In contrast, citizens of many other countries must learn two, three, or more languages. For example, German, French, and Italian are commonly spoken by many in Europe.
Bilinguals negotiate constantly between different sounds, words, concepts, grammatical structures and social norms associated with the languages they speak. This is bound to provide permanent, intensive, and versatile mental training.
Use Language Learning to Delay Dementia
The proportion of elderly people in the world has risen dramatically. This has led to the growing importance of age-related diseases, in particular dementia. Importantly, this development is not confined to the western world. It has been described as a “public health priority” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
At least two studies have shown that bilingualism requires multiple aspects of brain activity. Additionally, it has been shown to delay the onset of dementia symptoms in patients by approximately 4–5 years when compared to single-language speakers.
Furthermore, bilinguals are twice as likely to recover their cognitive abilities after a stroke, as reported by The National Center for Biotechnology Information.
York University and the American Academy of Neurology also conducted their own studies about bilingualism and dementia. Both institutions found that switching from one language to the other activates areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning. This involves the same area that is responsible for completing tasks.
For multilingual individuals, learning a new language when you reach the age of 50 is a good way to improve brain health.
Functional Brain Benefits of Learning a New Language
The exciting, emerging field of studying bilingualism and cognition research is resulting in intriguing new findings. One of these is that a second language offers a strong exercise regimen for the brain’s executive control center, ultimately making it more efficient.
Research suggests that multilingual people activate all their languages and then select the relevant one(s) for the task in hand. The constant juggling between different sounds, words, concepts, and grammatical and social rules trains so-called ‘executive functions’ and keeps them in shape. These functions include attention switching, inhibition, and monitoring.
In addition, bilingual adults concentrate better, ignoring extraneous stimuli more effectively than those who only speak one language. A study at Northwestern University showed that bilingual individuals were better at picking out a speaker’s voice amidst distracting noises.
Enhanced Creative Thinking
Constructing sentences and meaning in a second language often requires more conscious thought. One study found that learning a foreign language enhanced people’s fluency, elaboration, originality, and flexibility, the four scales measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.
Make Better Decisions
An additional study showed that people thinking in a foreign language made smarter decisions. They were more likely to consider a question more slowly and analytically than in their native language. Additionally, biases and emotions are present when thinking in your native tongue. But when considering the same problem in a non-native tongue, subjects in the study demonstrated “enhanced deliberation” based more on cold hard logic.
Even a Little Language Helps
Growing evidence shows learning a new language can represent a “powerful tool to reorganize brain neuroplasticity.” Even relatively short, months-long language learning programs can help reshape brain networks, improve global cognition, and increase functional connectivity in aging people’s brains.
Physical Brain Benefits
Researchers using MRI scans discovered that the brains of the participants studying languages increased in size, while the brain sizes of the other group remained the same. Growth was primarily in the parts of the brain related to language skills.
Their results suggest learning a new language as an adult reroutes brain networks, igniting shifts that can have long-term implications on memory and cognitive function.
The changes observed were greatest when it came to reading a new language. Fewer changes happen when listening, and almost none when speaking.
A researcher at the BCBL Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, Kshipra Gurunandan, says that, in some ways, adult brains are more flexible than previously hypothesized.
“The brain remains flexible enough to learn new languages well into adulthood, even if nailing the accent might get harder with age,” Gurunandan says.
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