April 11, 2011

Fighting off Brain Fade

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:48 am by dgcombs

I recently came across a couple of articles which seemed to indicate that learning a second language helps your brain.  In the one article, it goes so far as to say that the second language protects you from Alzheimer’s. The second doesn’t quite go that far only saying that the second language forces the brain to go through cognitive exercises which is good for the brain.

Of course I tweeted this and of course immediately got a response from a friend that Esperanto doesn’t count. Which actually got me thinking (in a couple of languages), “Why not?”

After all, one of the principles in the research is Dr. Ellen Bialystok. Why is that interesting? Well, as any schoolboy can tell you, Esperanto was invented in Bialystok, Poland which is also known as small Versailles. Bialystok was a hotbed of diversity.

Bialystok is settled by various nationalities (Poles, Russians, Belorussians and Tartars) and religious groups (Catholic and Orthodox) who coexist there peacefully. The most attractive sight in Bialystok is a palace dubbed the “small Versailles”. The whole region is dotted with Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish temples.”

According to the first article, the reason for the extra exercise is that people with multiple languages have a specific sequence of activity surrounding the choice of each word they utter:

Bilingual people, the theory goes, constantly have to exercise this brain system to prevent their two languages from interfering with one another. Their brains must sort through multiple options for each word, switch back and forth between the two languages, and keep everything straight.

So it looks like the benefit to the brain is like having a poor sorting and searching algorithm. Say I’m trying to convey something like “the apple is red.” My effort will follow along these lines:

  1. Search for concept <apple>.
  2. Found “apple” in dictionary “English”
  3. Does the person I’m speaking to understand English?
  4. Yes – Say “apple”
  5. No – Loop to 1

Just knowing that the word for “apple” is “pomo” in Esperanto or “pomme” in French or “epli” in Icelandic makes your brain work harder. A harder working brain exercises that “executive control system.” And before long, you end up with the Arnold Scharzenegger of brains.

The best news is that not only do early bilinguals gain benefits of this exercise of the mind, but “Even late bilinguals use these very same processes so they may have also the very same advantages.” And that will pump you up!

Conclusion: You are never too old to begin exercising your brain. The power lifting, weight bearing exercises aren’t dependent on the complexity of the syntax, the grammatical constructs or even the script in which the language is written. It’s the words, man. The WORDS. So if I were you, I’d pick a language with a straightforward (i.e. English-like) syntax, regular grammar and familiar script: Esperanto!

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