Languages may be maddening, but they may help to keep you sane

It seems that being able to speak multiple languages, and/or being able to express oneself well, may help to prevent dementia.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo recently conducted a study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, to explore the association between multilingualism and dementia risk.

To do so, they examined 325 Roman Catholic nuns who were members of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States. They gathered the data from the Nun Study, which assesses the sisters and their brain health.

After reviewing the material, they found 6% of the nuns who spoke four or more languages developed dementia, compared to 31% of those who spoke only one language.

. . .

The team also evaluated the nuns’ writing and discovered those who could best express their ideas on paper also had a lower dementia risk.

There’s more at the link.

When you think about it, I suppose that’s logical.  One’s mind has to work that much harder to translate, not just words, but concepts, between languages;  so it stands to reason that doing so often would “stretch” one’s mental capabilities, just as physical exercise is a workout for the body’s muscles.  If physical exercise helps to stave off physical disease or deterioration, why shouldn’t mental exercise do the same for the mind?

However, I guess one would need to use that ability frequently if it’s to have the desired effect.  I learned five languages in my younger days, in varying degrees of fluency:  English, Afrikaans, French, Zulu and Southern Sotho.  However, I haven’t used the latter four (except in passing, very infrequently – the latter two usually to swear when I stub my toe!) since coming to the USA more than two decades ago.  I’m not sure whether simply having studied them, once upon a time, would confer any immunity to dementia if I’m not actually using them.

As for writing being an anti-dementia exercise, that’s debatable.  Again, I think it depends on what you’re writing.  If you’re not actually using your brain to develop concepts and express them, is there any creativity involved?  And, if not, would that mental activity confer any sort of health benefit?  I’m not sure.  I’ve certainly heard of enough writers who’ve gone senile, or exhibited other mental problems.

Be that as it may, I guess I’d better write faster, just in case!



  1. Interesting study, and considering 'most' people think writers are crazy to start with, aren't we already half way there? 🙂

  2. Language held a passing interest for me In my youth.
    I had an uncle whose rifle exploded (I am assuming a bad reload) while on a caribou hunt.
    A piece of the receiver penetrated his skull and damaged the speech centers of his brain.
    As he underwent speech therapy the first words to come back were curses and profanity.
    The therapist assured the family that this was very common.
    I also knew of a case where someone who was multilingual had a traumatic brain injury and they lost the ability to speak English, which was their mother tongue, but they retained fluency in French.
    I could go on, but….oh well…the mother tongue (or any language) is learned without effort until a child reaches puberty. The hormonal locks are then thrown and one has to "work" a learning new languages. There are some folks who do not have that hormonal lock thrown, and I would bet you could find more than a few of them at the Language School in Monterey.

  3. I never did "learn" English or Urdu: I acquired them prior to any memory of first acquaintance with them. Most ejumacated folks in that place were bilingual in English and Urdu (the latter being the lingua franca), with often some other languages such as Punjabi, Pashto, Baluchi, Sindhi, Tharri, Hindko, etc. Starting a sentence in English and switching to Urdu in midsentence (or the other way round) with correct grammar on both sides of the switch was not uncommon.

    Since 99+% of the patients spoke exclusively or almost exclusively Bengali in med school in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, an ability to take a medical history in Bengali was a sine qua non for graduation: so I acquired the language through the "sink or swim" method (sans formal instruction).

  4. @Robin Datta: If neither side could speak the other's language, I'd be interested to read some of your early diagnoses!


  5. By the time one was past the basic (medical) science years and started the clinical work (actually seeing patients), even the few who did not know Bengali to start with had acquired enough of the language to get by.

  6. Waepnedmann – Oddly, you won't find many polyglots at Monterey. The instructors are mostly bilingual, and not all of them speak English terribly well. The students are mostly 19 year olds, who may (or may not) have learned a little Spanish in high school.

    You are more likely to find polyglots at the foreign service language institute

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