Originally, our brains were designed to be multilingual, managing two or more languages easily. Neuroscientist Thomas Bak reckons that, like sedentary lifestyles and an unhealthy diet, the monolingualism that’s come with modern society makes our thinking skills decline faster as we age and can actually make us more vulnerable to dementia in later life.
Last Thursday I had a chance to see and listen to what might become one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: the performance of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” by English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. For me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but also one of the most unsettling ones. It raises the question whether beauty can be equally perceived (and enjoyed), whether it is truthful or deceitful. Is the final, tantalisingly beautiful love duet between Nero and Poppea equally moving when we know that the feelings expressed there are not genuine, but rather reflect deceit and manipulation? This opera has been puzzling me since I had first heard it many years ago, but I believe it is exactly one of the things that great art should do: not only to please us, but also to make us think.
This is certainly one of the main goals of the “Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas”, in which I have the pleasure to participate for the second time. It is supposed to present provocative ideas, based on scientific evidence but challenging widely held believes and stereotypes. One of such believes, underlying much of our thinking about the nature of language, is that it is “normal” and “natural” to have a single native, “mother” tongue, one in which we feel most comfortable and in which we can express ourselves best, regardless of topic. In a recent paper, written jointly with a colleague from education sciences, Dina Mehmedbegovic, I have questioned this concept of the “mother tongue”, citing multiple examples of changing language dominance across the lifespan or of differential use of different languages, depending not only on people we speak with, but also on the context and topic.
In my show this coming Wednesday I want to go one step further proposing that the original situation in which human language has evolved was multilingualism. In contrast, there is nothing “natural” about monolingualism, it often reflected political pressure and oppressive ideologies. However, what I want to concentrate on is not so much politics as health; I will argue that a constant use of different languages and acquisition of new ones across the lifespan provided human beings with continuous mental training. The move from multilingualism to monolingualism can therefore be compared to that from a physically active lifestyle to a sedentary inactive one. The results are accelerated cognitive ageing, earlier onset of dementia and a slower recovery from stroke. But, as we can improve our physical heath by voluntary exercise, we can also improve our mental agility by learning languages. And, as our research at the University of Edinburgh shows, it is never too late to start it. We found measurable improvements on tests of attention already after one week intensive language courses and this in participants up to 78-years old.
Puzzled? Provoked? Just curious? I hope that my show will not only provide you with an update of the current knowledge on this topic but will also stimulate you to think about languages in a new way.
All these (and many other) questions will be answered in Dr Bak's show on Wednesday 23rd August.