Second Languages and Health

Second Languages and Health

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Second Languages and Health

Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. Over the next five weeks, I’m going to share with you 50 different lessons that I’ve learned about language teaching and learning as I approach my 50th birthday. It’s hard to believe I’ve been teaching languages for more than half of my life. That’s pretty astounding, and obviously for my entire life, I’ve been learning.

So I wanted to cover a different theme each week over the next few weeks, and I’m going to be linking to some research and you can explore these topics a little bit more in depth if you’d like.

Second Languages and Health: Surprising Benefits

So the first lessons that I learned or that I want to talk about, not that I’ve learned, are all about health and languages. In fact, these are some of the later lessons that I learned. I always felt like languages were great. I always felt like I was doing great brain training, great things for my brain, but I couldn’t really speak to it. I couldn’t speak about specifics. I knew it was good, but didn’t realize how good it was until I started really digging into the research in the past year or so.

And I’m so lucky. My book, The 5-Week Linguist, I got an opportunity to interview Dr. Thomas Bak, Who actually really helped me unpack and understand a lot of the research because a lot of it’s research that he did about how amazing languages are for health.

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Thomas Bak, he is a cognitive neuroscientist and he teaches at the University of Edinburgh. He was a professor at Cambridge for many years, super smart guy, incredibly brilliant. He speaks, I don’t even know how many languages well, and has a background as a medical doctor. And he originally was specializing… He did a PhD in acute aphasia, so sort of speech disorders sort of thing. And he got further and further into this field combining his vast knowledge of science and medicine and languages. So he did a study all about languages and dementia. So the first few lessons that we’re going to talk about today are really a lot of it’s based on Dr. Bak’s research.

Second Languages and Health: Ward Off Dementia

He had read some studies that were super interesting about the benefits of being bilingual on dementia. But the original study done in Canada had really been focused on a very homogeneous group of people. So there are lots of factors that could vary. So when he decided to really dive deep into learning does having another language in your life, at any point in your life, really help you ward off dementia? And so he did a study in Hyderabad India, which is a place where there’s no immigration. So people are not bilingual because they immigrated. And people are bilingual regardless of their level of education.

So when they found that having another language in your life wards off three different types of dementia by four to five years. It’s better than any drugs. And it also wards off vascular dementia. So as I understand that has to do with a stroke. So the next lesson that I learned is that apparently stroke victims who have more than one language in their life, it really aids in their recovery.

I’ve also started to make a really important decision that, really learned, taking in a lot more, some more terms to talk about different languages. There’s there’s bilingual, of course. And as Dr. Bak points out, we usually think of people bilingual, they grow up perfectly with two languages. And that’s something that I consider just, these people are hugely lucky. For some reason, they went through life mastering, at least two languages, right? Maybe they spoke one language at home and they spoke another language at school. They have no accent. They’re confident, they’re great communicators. They can go back and forth really easily.

But Dr. Bak got me thinking about after our interview, the term multilingualism. And it really spoke to me because it really honors people speaking different languages. And it also honors the fact that you’re probably not going to be competent in a whole bunch of languages, which is how I see myself. I say, I speak six languages, but those are varied degrees of competency, not for a lack of love for any of these languages, but it’s reality.

The languages I speak more have had a bigger necessity in my life or my work life or my family life or my personal life or just what I was born into, and I really liked that. So these health benefits, you can get them, regardless of whether you were raised in a perfectly bilingual setting. You can do that at any stage, really. And that’s completely up to you, which brings me to my next lesson, which is that the health benefits are even better when you’re older.

Second Languages and Health: Brain Training

So he also introduced me to the idea of language as simply a brain, a cognitive exercise, which I’m a very practical minded person. So I’m always thinking about how you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. So when people studied Latin in high school, while I was intrigued on one hand, on the other hand, I thought, “Hmm, why wouldn’t you study French or Spanish instead of Latin because it would give you some communicative skills?”

Again, not to devalue Latin at all, but to me, it would have made more sense. You would have learned a lot of the same roots that you might in Latin in studying another romance language. And you’d also be able to take what you learned in class and talk to people.

But thinking of it truly is just a brain exercise, right? Maybe you’ll never travel to China, but being able to exercise your brain, what a great benefit and what an enjoyable way to do so, especially when you think about combining it with being able to talk to more people.

Second Languages and Health: You’re Never Too Old

You’re never too old. In my lifelong applied linguist life or world there’s lots of research, and I’m so grateful for all of these people who share all these things that they’ve studied with us. And there’s lots of theories and hypotheses that children are better language acquirers than adults, which I tend to believe, but I also tend to believe it’s circumstantial as well. And because we hear a lot of children going back to that, being perfectly bilingual often have a context within which to learn a couple of languages. Maybe they’ve got one parent who speaks one language and another parent who speaks a different language, and they’re consciously raising that child in those two languages so that they’re competent and comfortable and confident.

But you’re never too old to get those same, to pick up another language, to get those same benefits. And I believe honestly, that generally speaking children are better acquirers of languages. They’re more comfortable. They usually have a context within which to do it. They haven’t gotten old enough to think it’s something weird. And I think there’s something physiological with sounds and pronunciation.

With that said, I do think that adults tend to be better learners. Right? Acquiring is when those really natural things that you do to pick up languages, being immersed in communicative context, being read to, speaking with your family, all of those ways that you would acquire language naturally and learning there’s very deliberate activities we do to learn a language. So verbs and vocabulary and focused study periods.

Naturally adults are better at that. So you’re never too old to get the benefits, even by just 30 minutes or so a day. I tend to spend a lot of time doing language in my car because that’s what my life allows me to do. But when I’m not so busy, I like binge watching on Netflix and Yabla to learn a language. I like doing my pleasure reading in another language. Right?

Krashen did a study on two hyperpolyglots, And one of them had never lived outside of Hungary and spoke maybe 23 languages and did it all by doing their pleasure reading. You’re never too old to do that. And the internet makes it possible to find really interesting content from anywhere.

Second Languages and Health: Switching Tasks

The next lesson is all about executive function. So one of the studies that had inspired Dr. Bak talked about children and executive function. So having another language, these bilingual children that I keep referring back to, tended to have improved executive function. And what that means, and I’m going to explain it in very layman’s terms because that’s certainly what I am when it comes to cognitive neuroscience is that switching tasks. So being able to pay attention very easily, go from one thing to another without a whole lot of disruption, to focus and pay attention when it’s necessary, to be able to sit and do something and then go and do something else.

So that’s really good for improved executive function, and through languages, the next lesson is that at any point in your life, you can gain cognitive reserve, meaning you’re building up these skills in your brain, which are going to make you less likely to succumb to dementia by four to five years, it will delay it. It’s just absolutely astounding. So you can really get that benefit anywhere in your life.

And another great lesson of the last one that I want to talk about with actually, I want to talk about two more. With age we talked about you’re never too old. Don’t worry about your accent. You can fit languages into your life, even just on your commute, even with an app, even with a book, even with listening.

Second Languages and Health: Dementia

They’re doing a lot of studies about treating dementia with languages. Right? We talked about it being a brain exercise that you’re never too old to learn. The research is really pretty new on this, but they have a project called Lingo Flamingo in Scotland that’s been going into work in care homes and nursing homes to offer language lessons to people with the hopes of treating dementia. I think it’s pretty exciting, and I’m going to be looking out to see what they come up with because the research has all been super promising thus far.

And the last lesson is that you don’t have to learn a language to fluency. So we talked all about the brain training and how beneficial languages for training your brains, but that you can have those varying degrees of language of competency in your life. Don’t feel pressured. It’s not black or white. It’s not all or nothing. It’s a continuum. And I think an ideal goal would be that you could learn languages to really confidently communicate with somebody, but it doesn’t have to be the only goal. You can communicate and still you can get the benefits regardless of where you are on that continuum. So that’s pretty exciting.

What I think is exciting about that is while it’s not ideal to say, maybe to strive to be a lower level speaker or something, it certainly makes it very realistic. And it takes a lot of pressure off of things. You don’t have to be perfectly bilingual. You don’t have to speak with a perfect accent. You don’t have to dedicate years of your life before you feel confident enough to talk to somebody, just get going on it. There’s lots of resources. We talked about there’s reading, there’s apps, there’s audio courses.

There’s so many things available to anybody who wants to learn languages on their own or just get the health benefits. So until next time.

Thank you for listening to the five week linguist show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.


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