A study presented this month to the American Academy of Neurology suggests that people who speak two or more languages face a reduced risk of developing memory-related problems in old age.
The research (as yet preliminary) supports the long-held theory that practices such as language-learning and learning to play a musical instrument can help stave off the negative effects on the memory of aging. It suggests that practising a further language at any point during your lifetime, whether continued into old age or not, will help protect the brain against memory issues.
The study was carried out in Luxembourg using 230 participants with an average age of 73, all of whom spoke or had once spoken between two and seven languages. The study did not recruit people with dementia. Its results revealed that only 19% of participants suffered memory problems and that the more languages a partcipant spoke the less likely these problems were to develop. Researcher Margali Perquin, from the Center for Health Studies (Luxembourg), stated that the research suggested that “speaking more than two languages has a protective effect on memory in seniors”.
There is something about learning an additional language, at any point during your life, which provides the brain with support that can later prove invaluable to memory. Perquin expressed the need for further research to confirm the findings and to see if other areas of cognition (such as problem solving or perception) were also positively affected by language learning.
Discovering which parts of language learning provided this reduced risk could also lead us to establishing what other activities we should do to aid our brains. If, for example, the memory power needed to remember a whole new grammar system and vocabulary was the factor that made language learning so beneficial than perhaps vocations that similarly require a significant amount of information to be learnt might also aid memory. Vocations could include driving a London Taxi and having to spend around two years learning ‘The Knowledge’ or being active university lecturers who must continue to research their field whilst teaching the subject to their students. Research conducted by E. Maguire (2000) has already revealed that London Taxi Drivers’ increased spatial awareness can increase the size of their hippocampi, so why not memory?
Maybe a cross-cultural comparison could be made to investigate whether memory diversity across cultures is determined (to some extent) by speaking multiple languages? In Luxembourg it is quite common for citizens to speak two or more languages, therefore in countries where this is not the case would we be able to see an increased level of memory problems within the population?
This research throws up many potential research questions, and whilst this research is still in its formative stages it no doubt only encourage the case for more people to take up additional languages no matter what their age or background.