Bonne nouvelle, ex-pats! Those embarrassing gaffes and awkward efforts to master French will ultimately pay off in ways you never expected… with a lean, mean brain that can even ward off the effects of Alzheimer’s! A raft of new studies are showing that bilingual brains are not only better exercised, but actually wired differently than those that speak only one language, and that the rewiring happens even when the second language is mastered as an adult.
Unfortunately though, just having a few years of high school French won’t do it… it takes using both languages on a quasi daily basis.
Fluency won’t stop you from getting Alzheimer’s, but it will give you an average 5-6 extra years before you show any symptoms at all. Other benefits include better problem solving, observation, anticipation, and multi-tasking.
It works like this: You know what you want to say, but since the words and grammar are different in the two languages, the brain comes up with both and then has to make constant snap decisions as to which to use. It turns out that for bilinguals, both language centers are always active, going through this whole effort even when using only one language, and this constant extra workout strengthens the cerebral muscles.
With neuroimaging, scientists can also see that bilinguals use completely different brain networks than monolinguals to solve problems, even non-verbal problems, as if the bilingual brain is wired differently. This extra facility gives the brain more problem-solving paths, which is why the difficulties presented with Alzheimer’s can be circumvented through these alternate neuron pathways, effectively hiding the disease for years. C’est excellent, ca!
Photo credit: Brain in jar by Gaetan Lee, licensed under Creative Commons.