Oct 052010

San Sebastian’s BCBL reveals that the ‘brain-training’ involved in thinking in two languages may delay the onset of neuro-degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

From Thursday September 30th until Saturday October 2nd, the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) (inaugurated in June in San Sebastian) brought together 160 of the world’s experts on Neurobilingualism in a three-day open workshop.

As the name suggests, the aim of the workshop was to discuss the effect of bi- and multilingualism on the human brain.

One of the experts, Nuria Sebastián, invited to speak about bilingualism in infancy, spoke to Basque newspaper the Diario Vasco about some of the studies being carried out in Neurobilingualism.

«There is data that suggests that (multilingualism) holds back the onset of neuro-degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s because being bilingual involves certain cognitive control,» explained Nuria Sebastian on Sunday October 3rd.

The location of the BCBL in the Basque Country has provided scope for some fascinating studies into bilingualism in children. Particularly as Spanish and Basque are two languages with completely different structures requiring different cognitive mechanisms.

Sebastián compares the effort required by a bilingual speaker to the sort of cognitive ‘brain-training’ that is currently fashionable for keeping the brain active.

The psychologist, who speaks four languages, explains: «I look at a glass, but my brain has already arranged three other words: ‘vaso’, ‘got’, ‘verre’. I have to choose the right one in the appropriate context.»

In other words, bilingual or multilingual speakers are better at tasks that involve changes in brain activity.

According to Sebastian, there is no difference in the number of bilingual people affected by Alzheimer’s versus that of monolingual speakers. However, «the symptoms take longer to manifest and the deterioration is slower.»

With regard to language-learning, Sebastián confirmed that the later we leave it, the harder it gets. However, she also advised that there was no magic involved:

«To learn another language well, children have to pay attention and concentrate. Just as adults do».

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