Saturday, October 23, 2010

"The Benefits of Multilingualism"

Jared Diamond has an article in Science magazine with this title. He cites research "that suggests that bilingualism offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia in old people." It is good to know that I may get some of the mental time back that I invested in the past in learning other languages.

He tells an anecdote from his time in New Guinea when he learned that his Highlander companions spoke from 5 to 15 languages each. I recall chatting with a teen age street vendor in Cairo, and realizing that not only was he conversing with me in English, but with others in French and Arabic. When asking people from Africa or the subcontinent I have often found that they speak several "local" languages from the region where they grew up as well as one of more "metropolitan" languages. (The priest who married my wife and me spoke eight languages fluently, and I recall lunching with him at the university where he was conversing with four of us at the same time in four languages.) I live in a county in which one in five people was born in another country, yet the majority of my fellow Americans are monolingual and fear or otherwise resist learning another language. Why is that?

Diamond does not mention the benefits of being able to learn what other people think by talking with them or reading what they write in their own languages. That seems an odd omission.

Diamond is of course the author of two of my favorite books, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. What an interesting mind that man has!

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