In a Welsh university, bilingualism is not uncommon. In fact over half of the world’s population is able to speak more than one language. Being bilingual certainly has its advantages, but research has found that they go deeper than just being able to communicate with more people.
A recent study has found that being bilingual can double your chances of recovering from a stroke. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, teamed with Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, found that 40 per cent of bilingual patients were able to regain normal cognitive functions following a stroke compared to 20 per cent of monolingual patients.
The study, published in the journal Stroke, looked at 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India: a location chosen for its multiculturalism, with many languages spoken there. They had been assessed on their attention skills and the ability to retrieve and organise information in order to see how well they had recovered.
Even taking into account lifestyle factors, such as smoking habits, high blood pressure, diabetes and age, it was still found that knowing more than one language does help. Researchers hypothesise that the mental challenges of being bilingual can boost cognitive reserve. Switching languages provides essential training for the brain
“Bilingualism makes people to switch from one language to another, so while they inhibit one language, they have to activate another to communicate. This switching offers practically constant brain training which may be a factor in helping stroke patients recover.” said co-author, Thomas Bak, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.
It is believed by researchers, however, that the results should be taken with caution as they may not apply to all bilingual people. The patients studied in Hyderabad switch languages regularly and it is a daily part of life for them. There are plans to undertake more research to determine the exact circumstances under which bilingualism can have a positive influence on mental functions.
The very same research team found that being able to speak more than one language can help to delay the onset of dementia. In a study of 650 patients, they found that bilingual people who developed dementia did so up to five years later on average than monolingual people.
Bak said: “These findings suggest that bilingualism might have a stronger influence on dementia than any currently available drugs. This makes the study of the relationship between bilingualism and cognition one of our highest priorities.”