Good For The Brain, Good For You Too! 

Early Multiple Language Learning

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

According to the Grand Larousse du cerveau, speaking two languages, especially from early infancy, could contribute to improving different cognitive capacities in the individual, and could protect from senile dementia and similar conditions associated with ageing. This is because expressing oneself in two languages results in more connections being established amongst the cells of the brain that are concerned with language learning. Could that be at least part of the explanation for the high prevalence of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the populations of mainly European countries and North America who speak essentially one language? It is an interesting thought, because it could lead to part of the solution which would be as painless as it could be pleasant, and far less expensive as prevention than later treatment (inexistent at the moment) – namely, learning another language in early infancy.

Not a fanciful idea at all because, using the latest techniques of imaging of the brain, scientists are able nowadays to demonstrate what changes take place in which part of the brain when human activities such as singing, talking, walking, thinking are carried out. In the case of learning more than one language, it has been some time now that they have shown that in what is known as the ‘speech area’ situated on the left side of the brain, there is an increased connectivity between the brains cells and that in fact the size of that area is slightly larger and comprises two differentiated parts compared to that of children who learn to speak only one language. In other words, there is actual physical development of the brain, which has a positive multiplier effect in terms of learning and speaking languages: one of the cognitive capacities referred to above.

In fact, according to an article which appeared in the French magazine Le Point of 24 Jan 2011, it has been established that the newborn child possesses, as from the age of three months, a fairly developed brain circuit that allows him to recognize certain elements of a sentence when they are repeated, and hence his ability to pick up rapidly his mother language. But it is a reality that many children all over the world are exposed to two or more languages from the time they are born. In such cases, several studies have shown that as they grow up these kids are no worse off – on the contrary, they seem to fare better both emotionally and intellectually, and are able to switch from one language to another with great ease.

Further, the article goes on to point out, research has shown that bilingualism does not pose any problem, that it does not give rise to confusion and has no adverse effect on overall development. As regards learning of a foreign language at an early age, there can only be advantages. The learning of another language does not affect in any way the acquisition of one’s mother tongue, even if the child has not yet mastered fully the latter. In short, a child can concurrently learn two languages without difficulty and go on to talk both with the proper intonation and other specificities of the languages.

French children to learn English from age 3

The above findings have provided the rationale for the learning of English by French pre-primary schoolchildren from the age of three years: so has decided the French Minister of Education, reports the article in Le Point. It is felt that the French are trop ‘monoglottes’, and the Ministry of Education ‘veut combattre ce mal national dès la maternelle.’ This will be done using all the latest available technological supports in the teaching of languages, and there will be a revisiting in depth of the pedagogical practices applicable as from the earliest learning stages. Looking ahead, there is also a project for students above 18 to spend at least some of their time learning the language in a setting abroad, by placements in partner institutions to be identified in England, America, Germany.

This comes as no surprise, for the French have long since recognised that English is the predominant vehicle of scientific communication and knowledge, and its influence is only going to increase. Those who stubbornly refuse to accept this reality will be the losers. It is to be recalled that nearly two decades ago, the Annales de l’Institut Pasteur changed from publishing a main article in French with an English summary to the opposite, that is, main article in English and French summary, to the great dismay of the French Minister of Culture, whose desperate move to stop this eventuality was not successful. It was either that, or stop publication.

All the French colleagues I have worked with know English, even if they have some difficulty speaking it. When I was in Marseilles in 1985 for a six-month fellowship at CHU La Timone, the French colleagues who were preparing their thèse de doctorat told me that at least 60% of the references had to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, otherwise they would have difficulty getting it accepted. I was also of use to them in translating certain articles from the British Journal of Plastic Surgery and the American Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery into French – and this resulted in lasting friendships.

We cannot repeat again and again: we must not be shy about learning languages as early as possible, for it is scientifically proven that this develops the brain, and therefore the personality, with benefits that spill into old age. Given the opportunities we have locally, we should be among the first to exploit them, and all of us can only be enriched as a result. To be global citizens, the more languages we speak the better. In fact it is also high time that our educational system offered Mandarin and Sanskrit as firm options, that will only expand our possibilities to the emerging giant markets.

The Plastic Brain: Development continues

This is another piece of good news: it used to be thought that the brain grew to a certain size, had a fixed number of brain cells (in billions), and that no new cells ever formed. But a new study by American scientists has confirmed, as many earlier studies had done too, that a form of meditation known as ‘Bottom of Formmindfulness practice’ leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density: in other words, new brain cells are formed in the relevant parts of the brain. And when this happens, there is an accompanying proliferation of their connections, the white matter of the brain, which allows different parts of the brain to communicate, ‘talk’, with each other.

The benefits of meditation on health and well-being have been known for millennia by practitioners from India. In recent times, many of them have gone to the West to teach their techniques and establish centres and institutions for the benefit of local citizens, many of whom have branched off to set up their own outlets and innovated in their recruiting and ‘marketing’ skills. But fundamentally, they respect the tradition, and one such is the school of ‘Transcendental Meditation’ which was popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and which has gained a strong foothold in several places, with its headquarters in the Netherlands. Many studies have been carried out using rigorous scientific methodology, and which have demonstrated the benefits of TM in various diseases such as hypertension, bronchial asthma and so on, besides its positive, calming effects on behaviour in general. There are other ongoing studies at various centres both in India and in the UK and USA, to confirm the usefulness of meditation and yoga in several conditions.

Of course, we did not have to wait for scientific studies to get going with yoga and meditation. The current explorations of the changes in the brain resulting from the practice of meditation are meant to elucidate the underlying mechanisms – the how of what happens during these altered states of the brain. These lead not only to a better understanding of brain structure and function, but may also lead scientists up pathways of exploration hitherto unknown, and perhaps applications that may be of benefit in an extended range of conditions about which we have no clue at the moment.

It has been a common practice in medicine to make use of substances without knowing exactly how they produce their effect. The classic case, well known to the lay public, is that of the pain-killer aspirin. It has been in use for more than a century, and who does not remember the famed Aspro which could be bought at the corner shop? But it is only about 20 years ago that science began to understand how it produces its effects, and gained knowledge of its other properties, a most useful one being keeping the blood in the arteries fluid, with the potential to protect human subjects from getting strokes, for example. It does mean that one should go out and start popping the modern version as a self-medication: there are dangers too, and it is only under strict medical supervision that it – as well as all other drugs – should be taken. The lesson is that explanations often lag behind empirical practices which time has proven to be sound, and meditation is a case in point.

We could do no better than to serve ourselves to it, of course under guidance for initiation. We shall all become better for that, and the times are such that unless we change our ways, we shall be harming ourselves and society at large. That, surely, is not what any reasonable person would want in this day and age.

* Published in print edition on 4 February 2011

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