Bilingualism Known to Have Health Benefits, but Does the Language Itself Matter?

Chinese language instruction
Teacher points to Chinese characters on the board at an English-Mandarin Chinese dual-language immersion program in Venice, California. Researchers are exploring whether being bilingual in lesser-known, minority languages has as many cognitive and linguistic benefits as knowing a major language such as Chinese or Spanish. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Aneta Karagiannidou and Yiotis Katsambas never questioned whether they would speak Greek to their 7-year-old son, Mihalis, whom the couple is raising in Los Angeles. While census data show a staggering 56 percent of Los Angelenos report speaking a language other than English at home, Greek certainly counts among the most minority of minority languages spoken there, and anywhere else in the U.S.

Karagiannidou grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, and started learning English at age 7 and later Italian and some Czech and French. She has experience teaching English as a second language and thinks the act of moving back and forth between languages is a form of mental exercise that likely results in a stronger, more effective brain. While some would question whether it's smart thrusting a difficult language like Greek on their young child, she thinks challenging Mihalis intellectually in this way will pay off—and not just for the obvious reason that he can communicate with his grandmother.

"To me it's the process of acquiring another language that is important, any language for that matter," Karagiannidou says. "For me the importance lies in challenging a child's brain into making sense of a different linguistic system in order to satisfy everyday needs."

Speaking more than one language has been shown to not only impart knowledge and cultural understanding but to come with health benefits such as mental agility. One study even showed a 4-5 year delay in the onset of dementia in bilingual older adults.

But what hasn't been studied is if learning a minority language—one that is not dominant in a community—can have the same effects as learning a major language. Researchers explored this at this weekend's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Professor Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh, who established and directs the Bilingualism Matters Center there, discussed research on minority languages, such as Gaelic and Sardinian, at Saturday's symposium. Through its 15 European and two U.S. branches, Sorace's center conducts bilingualism research and public engagement work with families, businesses and health professionals. "In bridging the gap between research and the general public, we hope to put to rest misconceptions that still exist about bilingualism," Sorace says.

Many people question whether two languages learned simultaneously is too much for young children's brains to handle—or even if their ability to learn to read or write the majority language will be compromised, according to Sorace. There is general recognition of the value of learning to speak languages that are regarded as prestigious because they are spoken in countries with economic power. Knowing them is considered to translate into job prospects. Few, for example, would question whether parents should speak to their child being raised in the U.S. in their native Chinese.

But Sardinian, Welsh, Gaelic, Euskera, or Greek?

Based on her previous research and that of her colleagues, Sorace suspects minority languages have the same positive effects on mental agility as prestigious languages. "The young brain doesn't really know the difference between a prestigious language and a non-prestigious language, or between languages or dialects," says Sorace, who is Italian born to a Sardinian mother.

A 2015 study she conducted with colleagues showed that across age groups the language and general cognitive abilities of Sardinian–Italian bilingual children is in most cases indistinguishable from that of monolingual Italian children. She now plans to study whether Sardinian-Italian bilingual children are able to learn English more easily than monolingual Italian children. Previous studies have shown that bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language, but Sorace hopes to discover whether the same is true when a person speaks a minority language.

"Studies show that a child who has more than one language is able to understand the structure of language better. That helps with the acquisition of additional languages as well," Sorace says.

Mihalis Katsambas turns eight this month and is likely unaware of the cognitive and linguistic benefits of growing up bilingual. He is pleased he can speak to his cousins when they come to visit from Greece. More than that, he likes the privacy speaking a minority language in Los Angeles affords him. "If I want to tell my Mom or Dad a secret and we are in public, I can always tell them in Greek. No one ever knows what I am saying."