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mental health mondays :: babble on

one of the things that i've rarely addressed on mental health mondays [and never in any meaningful detail] is the subject of what happens to our brains as we age. even those of us who are lucky enough to go through their lives without falling victim, even temporarily, to a mental illness [and that does still constitute a majority of us], have to accept that, as we age, we can lose a considerable amount of our cognitive functions. that can mean simply being confused, or struggling to find the right words, to bouts of dementia, to full-on alzheimer's disease.

we avoid calling these mental disorders, because they are accepted as a "natural" part of aging. that's just what happens to our brains. except that's not true. the more we study the brain, the more that we discover what's considered "natural" may actually be a byproduct of what we consider "normal" and should by no means be considered as a given. there are things that can keep the brain functioning at a higher level that are within reach of many people, it's just that we don't hear enough about them. and as it turns out, i've been warding off dementia for several months, although i didn't realise i was doing so, by studying languages. 

this is related to a concept called "neuroplasticity", which, if i may be allowed to grossly oversimplify, is the idea that your brain isn't static once it's reached its adult stage, but that it's kind of stretchy and squishy and that, when worked in the proper way, it can be reshaped in a way that makes it more efficient and more resilient to regular wear and tear. [for a less inane explanation, you can read this article.]

neuroplasticity itself is a well-studied phenomenon, although it's unfortunately become associated with companies seeking to market subscription services that purport to increase this function through "brain games". the science behind these games is hotly debated, meaning that there is no scientific consensus that these methods have any meaningful effect on keeping the brain "in shape" and helping to extend its strength. 

one thing that has been studied, however, is the effect on the brain of learning a second [or third, or fourth...] language. and unlike the games model, the benefits for the brain that come from language learning go beyond the skills specifically related to language itself. in fact, it actually makes the brain grow [don't worry, your skull won't suddenly get too small].

as i mentioned earlier, those who speak more than one language tend to stave off age-related dementia by about four years compared to their unilingual counterparts. bundled into that benefit is that the skills developed are long-term: once you've developed them, it seems that the perks that come with language-learning stay with you. [it's not clear exactly how long the effect stays, or how this persistence is related to the maintenance/ practice of language learning, but polyglots definitely have an advantage.]

there have also been studies that indicate those who can speak or understand more than one language are more perceptive about their surroundings and make more rational decisions [for instance, about money]. being financially smarter is nice enough, but the basis of the skill has a lot more applications. every language reflects something of the culture in which it develops. that's why languages borrow words and expressions from others- because there isn't something that they already have that matched. some of those are very obvious: english uses the german "angst" and the french "je ne sais quoi" because they have an implication that goes beyond "fear" and "i don't know what". others have been in the language so long that we no longer notice their foreign origins. [in fact, english is an amalgam of almost nothing but foreign words, but that's another story.]

all that is to say that knowing only one language effectively applies blinkers to one's worldview, because, without the words to do so, it's difficult to understand ideas that come from a different culture. learning another language can help remove those psychological blinkers and at the same time, make it easier to see the underlying meaning in things like advertising or politics.

plus, of course, learning a language makes you more aware of the workings of languages- parts of speech, word order, verb tenses- which bleeds back into your use of your own language. learning the difference between "tu regardais" and "tu regarderais" forces you to think about the differences between saying "you watched" and "you would have watched", if only on a near-subconscious level. [and of course, learning a third language can create a spillover effect into the other two, etc.] so it strengthens your ability to communicate in general.

i could not find any studies that have been done on whether there is a correlation between language learning and mental health. they seem to involve very different parts of the brain, but when something is so closely connected, it seems that it would be an interesting subject, at least. you can be certain that, if and when such a thing does appear, i'll be all over it. until then, you'll just have to be happy in the relative certainty that you're delaying dementia, increasing your brain size and being more perceptive.

p.s. :: if you're interested in learning another language and are wondering about the difficulty level involved, i recommend this handy chart.

p.p.s. :: there are a number of free online language courses available. thus far, i've had very positive experiences with duolingo.

p.p.p.s. :: i know it's tuesday. i'm not that forgetful yet.

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