May 15, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Dr. Gitit Kavé: “Learning a new language can only do good things.”Learning a second or third language in childhood may protect your brain against the effects of aging later in life, according to new research by Israeli scientists.

In the study, Dr. Gitit Kavé, a clinical neuro-psychologist from the Herczeg Institute on Aging at Tel Aviv University, and colleagues Nitza Eyal, Aviva Shorek, and Jiska Cohen-Manfield, discovered that senior citizens who speak more languages test for better cognitive functioning and are likely to be more clear-minded at an older age.

The research was based on a survey taken in 1989 on people between the ages of 75 and 95. Each person was asked how many languages he or she knew, what his or her mother tongue was, and which language he or she spoke best. The researchers compared bilingual speakers to tri- and multilingual speakers.

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that the more languages a person spoke, the better his or her cognitive state was. A person’s level of education was also strongly associated with cognitive state, but the number of languages contributed to the prediction of cognitive fitness beyond the effect of education alone.

Although the easiest way to explain the findings, which were published in the journal Psychology and Aging, was to point out the relationship between higher education and number of languages, this was not the whole story, according to Kavé.

“We found that more languages were most significantly correlated with cognitive state in those people who had no education at all,” she says.

Kavé’s findings are likely to add fuel to the controversy that still rages today about whether or not parents should introduce their young children to a second language.

“In my professional opinion, learning a new language can only do good things,” she explains. “Other languages are good for you at any age. They allow for a flexibility of thought and a channel for understanding another culture better, as well as your own,” says Kavé.

She believes that further research is now necessary to find out whether languages reflect an initial potential for prolonged mental fitness, or whether learning and speaking more languages actually creates new links in the brain that contribute to the strengthening effect in the brain over time.

Despite the findings of this study, Kavé urges caution. “The study looked at the final result and not the cause,” she says. “There is no sure-fire recipe for avoiding the pitfalls of mental aging. But using a second or third language may help prolong the good years.”

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