Language and dementia by David Paulson Ph.D.

Why would we talk about foreign languages and dementia research at the same time?

We’re glad you asked!

By DAI member, David L. Paulson, Ph.D.

David Paulson

This week our blog has been written by David Paulson, who himself is fluent in a number of languages. Thank you David for this interesting article about language and dementia.

“A generation ago, applied linguists were investigating issues of universal (human) language, language aphasia and interlanguage. Naturally, applied linguists still continue to investigate these issues.

Since recorded history, researchers have scuffled over what makes a language a language and not just a dialect or other variant. Battles continue to be fought at home and abroad over who will speak which language(s). With the advent of religious scribes and later the printing press, languages became standardized. Broad regional dialects become more standardized with the advent of radio and later television.

Even as recently as 40 years ago at our nation’s bicentennial, you had to travel to a major urban area to purchase a publication or dictionary in another language, and any language other than English was considered “foreign” – in fact, international variants of English were considered affected and incorrect and/or foreign.

We have learned that language use is highly politicized and can be quite divisive.

Language aphasia in younger people may be caused by trauma due to any number of circumstances, not the least of which is sudden and unexpected immersion into another language and culture. Aphasia is one of the mind’s responses to extreme stress and trauma.

Language researchers for years have used techniques to help lower the subject’s affective filter so that comprehensible and well-measured input may be more accessible to the person traumatized. Code-switching – that is, switching between two or more languages – is something that only multilingual people do with their brains. It is a unique and complex neurological process which involves filtering information, forming concepts that become ideas that become thoughts, and later words.

This process is different and as new research suggests, infinitely more flexible in the multilingual individual. The article below and other similar research suggests that being bilingual and reinforcing your second language or even studying a second language in early stages of dementia may help the brain build alternate pathways to communication.

I cannot say, “that billboard is ugly” in French, but I know enough to be able to express that general idea. Problems like these never even cross a monolingual’s mind. A bilingual communicates with her/his whole body and mind to compensate for gaps in lexical knowledge, relying on significantly more reciprocal gesturing and mutual engagement with her/his interlocutor.

Once a week I teach Spanish Conversation to a group of seniors with various degrees of dementia. Engaging them in intermediate tasks such as describing their families, talking about sociopolitical issues in Latin America or learning the names for many foods lifts them from their walkers and wheelchairs to a place where they are fully engage in college-level tasks and stunned that they are able to sustain discussions in a language that many of them have not used in 40+ years.

This is simply anecdotal information and not scientific research.

But I will say that the long-time Administrator of the facility was stunned when she visited and found us chatting in Spanish, sipping horchata and taking furious notes. All the while one or the other will blurt out, “I can’t believe I can still speak Spanish after all these years!” Of course they can, and by accessing that second language ability, it could help them to remain communicative for longer than otherwise expected.”

For more information, please refer to the following recent article featured in MedicoDaily By :

Brain Scans Reveal Which Networks Help Us To Learn A Foreign Language