25 Days of CoDI: Day 8

On the eight day of CoDI, Bak proposed to me, language lessons as an alternative therapy…

Thomas Bak: Language Lessons on the NHS thomas bak

Thomas Bak reckons we should have language lessons prescribed on the NHS. Sound like madness? Well maybe we should reveal a bit more to you about the method in his madness then…

Research shows that learning languages helps us age healthily, even if we start learning them in later life. Furthermore, being able to speak two languages can delay the onset of dementia symptoms by 4-5 years (more than any available drug!) and improve how well a patient recovers their mental abilities after a stroke.

So what does this mean for you? Well Thomas answered a number of questions from the public here:


Fiona, via twitter:
Do you think the level a person speaks their 2nd language matters? Is it the learning activity creating the effect?

There are different effects at different stages of learning. Higher proficiency is better but you don’t need to be perfect.


Chiara, via email:
Speaking 2nd language delays brain ageing: is this true only for early bilinguals, or do 2nd language learners benefit too?

Most research so far has been done on early bilinguals – i.e. people who grew up with two languages from a very early age. In our studies, we found similar effects in people who learnt a second language in adulthood, but it is true that we are only just starting to explore the effect of language learning in adults.

The Lothian Birth Cohort data, which we used in our recent 2014 paper about brain ageing is a great way of doing this. As I said to Fiona, you certainly don’t need to be perfectly fluent in order to reap the benefits, and it is never too late to start!


Age UK, via email:
Should we make foreign languages compulsory in secondary education?

There certainly do seem to be advantages in terms of brain health, as well as all the cultural and economic advantages (a lack of language skills costs the UK economy billions of pounds a year!). Personally, I would say that encouraging language learning at any stage of education is a good idea. The earlier you start, the easier it is to learn. That is one reason why the UK and Scottish government’s commitment to language learning in primary schools is so important.


Vicky, via twitter:
Hi Dr Bak. What can people who don’t speak another language do? Would another skill like learning a musical instrument help?

The quick answer is yes, language learning is only one type of beneficial mental activity. There are many others, music being one. Work by Denise Park suggests that engaging in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances cognitive function in older adults. In other words, any cognitively demanding activity can be beneficial and rewarding – learning a language is a good example, and so is learning the piano.


Fionna, via email:
Does learning a language with a different alphabet have any bearing?
Judith McClure from the Scotland-China Education Network, via email:
Does it matter how similar the two languages are? Is there any particular benefit to learning a language like Chinese, which requires you to learn a different writing system?

At present there is very little research on written language and different alphabets. A lot of work still to be done! Madeleine (from Bilingualism Matters) and I have a few papers looking at the different languages studied in research into language loss following stroke, brain injury or dementia, and there is a massive bias towards Western European languages. So the short answer is, we don’t know – but we should be trying to find out!
Regarding similarity between languages, again, the short answer is that we don’t know. One of the questions that the major EU “AThEME” project will be looking at over the next five years is the effect of learning two similar languages (e.g. English and French) compared with two very different languages (e.g. English and Chinese). So keep your eyes peeled for updates!

( Taken from Bilingualism Matters website http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/dr-thomas-bak/)

It will be Thomas’ first CoDI show, and it promises to be a good one. If you’d like to learn more about alternative medications, or have a view or a question you would like to share, be sure to come along and join us!

Thomas’ show takes place on Thursday 11th August, Stand in the Square (Venue 372), 3-4pm, £8 (£6)

Purchase tickets at:   http://www.outstandingtickets.com/show/106/performance/1541/book-tickets

Thomas NHS