Bilingualism has unusual consequence

My mother-tongue died almost two thousand years before I was born. It died like languages do – gradually. It died as a result of a miscalculated revolt, a war that could not be won, bloodshed and exile. Almost 2,000 years later, it was miraculously revived. And so, by the age of 7, and completely unaware of these dramatic turns in the history of my mother-tongue, I was quite fluent in Hebrew.

For the Ministry of Education in Israel, Hebrew was not enough. Therefore, from the tender age of 7, I spent 4 hours a week in the classroom studying compulsory English. Many more hours were spent doing homework in English. Exams had to be taken, and in return, grades were given.

The differences between Hebrew and English became evident: Hebrew is written from right to left and books are opened in what seems to the English speaker as the last page.

Hebrew has only 22 letters (some are written differently when they appear at the end of a word). Its vocabulary is limited compared to that of the English language, nouns are not gender-blind (a chair is masculine, but a tomato is feminine), and the order of words in a sentence is less rigid (“I love you” and “you I love” have the same meaning).

Confronting two different sets of vocabularies and grammatical rules must have had some effect on my brain. For example, when looking for words to express myself, I am often encountered with the unpleasant realization that the words that appear in my mind are in the wrong language. Words in Hebrew keep presenting themselves when I communicate in English and vice versa.

This and other burdens of bilingualism are not unique to me. In an interview with NPR, Gustavo Perez Firmat, a Cuban-American who writes poetry, novels and academic works in both Spanish and English said: “I don’t have one true language,” and “I have the feeling that I am not fluent in either one, words fail me in both languages.” He has the “Bilingual Blues,” (a name he gave to one of his poems).

But the news is not all bad for bilinguals. In their review, “Understanding the Consequences of Bilingualism for Language Processing and Cognition’,” published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, Judith F. Kroll and Ellen Bialystok confirm that “bilinguals activate information about both languages when using one language alone.”

They also report that “studies of executive function have demonstrated a bilingual advantage with bilinguals outperforming their monolinguals counterparts on tasks that require ignoring irrelevant information, task switching and resolving conflict.” Oh! What a relief it is.

As if bilinguals did not have enough good news, a recent study published in the journal Neurology found that bilingualism delays the age at onset of dementia. The study had a unique perspective. Prior studies looked at the effects of bilingualism on dementia in a population of immigrants, making it difficult to separate the effects of bilingualism from other related factors such as diet, lifestyle or ethnicity.

The participants in this study live in Hyderabad, India where several different languages are spoken. And they have been living there for generations, making it easier to appreciate the true effect bilingualism has on the age at onset of dementia.

The researchers looked at a group of 648 patients with dementia, 391 of them were bilingual. They found that bilingual patients developed symptoms of dementia 4.5 years later than the monolingual patients. The difference remained significant when the researchers considered different types of dementia (Alzheimer’s disease is just one type of dementia.

Other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia, also exist. This difference in the age at onset of dementia was also observed in illiterate patients and was independent of other factors such as level of education, gender, occupation or place of dwelling (rural vs. urban).

Is bilingualism a blessing or a burden? The answer may be encouraging for the bilinguals among us, and for those who wish to learn a new language. We intuitively knew the many benefits of mastering a second language (communicate, work, create and learn with people of other geographic locations and of different cultures).

Then, the newer, more scientific evidence became available (bilinguals outperform in several important tasks, and the onset of dementia is delayed). But the most important benefit is often forgotten. Learning a new language is about finding joy and beauty – raw and untranslated – an adventure taken through a different set of words, sentences and ideas.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at