The value of speaking a second language – How well do you speak Spanish?

by learn a language journalist

George Orwell wrote in 1938: “The only way I could get along was to carry everywhere a small dictionary which I whipped out of my pocket at moments of crisis. But I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain!”

 More than 70 years after the publication of Homage to Catalonia, hundreds of thousands of Orwell’s fellow countrymen have followed his lead.

The global Spanish language standards entity, based in Madrid, revealed this week that as at the beginning of 2020, the national tongue of Spain and much of Latin America had a total of 585 million speakers.

They include those who have had to learn it, or whose main native language is not Spanish, as well as mother-tongue speakers – and, as has been the case for a very long time, the country with the most native Spanish speakers is the USA, a nation where it is not even the official language.

Of the 7.5% of the world’s population who speak Spanish, a total of 489 million were born in a country where it is the official language, and the remaining 74 million are either learning it or are already fluent in it. So, as you can see Spanish is spreading quickly but there are more benefits to speaking Spanish than just communicating.

Research has shown,  using Spanish in everyday situations and sticking to regular classes can help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, say, doctors.

Learning a foreign language could put back the first signs of dementia by at least five years, 

Expatriates in Spain are at a particular advantage since those who regularly use the language they have learnt are even more likely to fight off Alzheimer’s than those who have merely studied one and let it lay dormant. Whilst crosswords, sudokus and other ‘thinking’ puzzles have long been lauded as a tool for fighting off memory loss and confusion in old age, experts believe that those who speak two or more languages have even more chance of retaining their mental faculties.

They say learning a language is a more powerful type of mental exercise, and builds up a bank of ‘spare’ brainpower which helps the mind to keep working for longer and more effectively, slowing down the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s.

Medics behind the research, which took place at York University in Toronto, Canada, say this is rather like keeping a spare battery for your mobile phone or an emergency tank of petrol in your car.

“It means your brain can keep going for longer because there is more in the safety tank,” they say.

The part of the brain that controls memory, decision-making, reasoning and expressing oneself in words is made stronger, more flexible and more resistant to damage by learning and using a foreign language.

Doctors claim the sooner a person starts to learn a language, the more beneficial it is for slowing down the process of dementia and age-related confusion.

Researchers found that the average Alzheimer’s sufferer began to see the early symptoms of their condition in their mid-70s, or younger, where they only spoke one language.

But those who spoke two or more languages – or were actively learning one – tended to be in their 80s before they were diagnosed with dementia.

Additionally, the process of the mind breaking down – including loss of short-term memory – took hold much more rapidly in monolingual patients.

However, they warn that learning a language will not actually prevent Alzheimer’s – it will simply slow down the associated mental deterioration and stop the condition from manifesting itself for much longer.

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