Many of us are lucky, living in countries where more than one language is spoken. I live in Montreal, Canada - in the province of Quebec, which is majority French. It isn't unusual to get in an elevator or stand in line at a store, and hear people effortlessly switching back and forth between French and English. I've also been witness to, and party of, two people speaking in French to each other, only to realize after a while, that both participants are native-English speakers.
How does knowing more than one language affect older people?
According to a study published this week in the Annals of Neurology, older adults who speak at least two languages seem to have a slower cognitive decline (loss of memory) than those who are monolingual, or speak only one language. And interestingly, the second language didn't have to be learned when they were children.
This study, done at the University of Edinburg in Scotland, looked at 835 native English speakers who had been born in the Edinburgh area in 1936. The participants took an intelligence test when they were 11 years old, and the participants were tested again when they were in their early 70s. Of the 835 participants, 195 had learned a second language as a child and 65 had as an adult.
The findings of the study showed that those who spoke more than one language, no matter when the language was learned, generally performed better than those who spoke only one language.
The study's lead author, Dr. Thomas Bak, said in a press release:
The Lothian Birth Cohort offers a unique opportunity to study the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive aging, taking into account the cognitive abilities predating the acquisition of a second language. These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain."
What is the take away? It's never too late to learn another language and aside from the wonderful things you can learn by speaking another language, there's a good chance it will benefit you even later in life.