The benefits of learning a second language

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Brain diseases are some of the most-common ailments that the elderly face as they age, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s can alter a patient’s life forever. While it might seem somewhat unavoidable that brain deterioration happens with age, experts are now finding that there are a number of ways that these conditions can be avoided, and learning a language is one of the most-commonly suggested.

The many benefits of learning a new language are well-known, including enhanced tolerance toward other cultures, better opportunities career-wise, and the ability to make new connections on travels. However, scientists are just starting to delve into how language-learning can go beyond what is typically known and how it can affect students on a neurological level.

“For much of the history of modern neuroscience, the adult brain was believed to be a fixed structure that, once damaged, could not be repaired. But research published since the 1960 has challenged this assumption, showing that it is actually a highly dynamic structure,” writes Mo Castandi for the Guardian.

Now that it is believed that the adult brain is more pliable than originally suspected, scientists are considering how it can be changed—and how some of the effects of aging might be reversed through some reprogramming. It might be more difficult for an elderly person to pick up a new language than it would be for a young child, but that does not mean that it is impossible, nor that students do not receive the perks that come with it.

“A number of recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow this inevitable age-related cognitive decline or perhaps even delay the onset of dementia,” Castandi continues.

Some of these benefits include better cognitive functions, the delay of neurological impairments, and functioning even with damaged brain tissue. Studies also mention that the age the learner chooses to acquire a new language might be less important than actually acquiring new verbal skills, meaning that any age is a good time to become bilingual.

“In terms of starting language learning in middle or old age, the likelihood of becoming truly fluent in a new tongue is low, but it seems that every little bit helps in preventing cognitive decline,” comments Judith Knoll at Penn State University for CNN.

The actual changes going on in the brain are a bit harder to track, but experts comment that it seems bilingual subjects were able to multitasking better than those who were monolingual. This might mean that those who know another language are better at filtering out unnecessary information, while also using two separate areas of the brain. In order for a speaker to understand a language, he or she must translate it while also coming up with a reply in his or her nonnative tongue. “When a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. That means that speakers of two languages are constantly inhibiting one language in favor of another, which perhaps enhances their overall attention skills,” Knoll says.

Language-learning programs like Gritty Spanish emphasize the fact that learning can be done at all levels, and that it can also be fun. While learning a new tongue is often not an easy undertaking, it can be a rewarding experience other than preserving learners’ brains. Using new technology, companies like these are opening the door toward making language easier but also an enjoyable experience.

Audio programs such as Gritty Spanish can also ease those who are intimidated by learning new verbal skills into speaking another language. “Researchers argue that immersion is the best method for learning a language, but when you’re starting out, leaping into a situation with limited knowledge and only a handful of words and phrases to throw out defensively is nerve-wracking,” writes Melissa Douglas for the Huffington Post.

For those who are not looking for fluency, a program like Gritty Spanish might be the best option. Users can choose to acquire new skills and study in their own time, and it can serve as a way to exercise the brain more than to stress or frustrate. Bilingualism can be a journey that takes years to finish, but that does not mean that new students have to forgo the pluses that come with taking on a new language.

“Those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected…the strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and in reading…[they] were present in those who had learned their second language early, as well as later in life,” states a BBC article written about a recent study.

As new ways of learning are rapidly developed for language-learners, it seems as though the elderly have a reason to celebrate and to continue on a life-long path of learning. It goes to show that no matter how old you are, it never hurts to develop a new skill.

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