Language skills: Linguist Wendy Ayres-Bennett of Cambridge University says research shows those who speak one language take longer to recover from strokes and get early onset dementia before multilinguals develop it. Picture: SUPPLIED
Language skills: Linguist Wendy Ayres-Bennett of Cambridge University says research shows those who speak one language take longer to recover from strokes and get early onset dementia before multilinguals develop it. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s almost official now: monolingual people are at a physical disadvantage and may develop health problems. Linguist Wendy Ayres-Bennett of Cambridge University calls it "a newly identified disease".

Ayres-Bennett spoke at the recent Hay Festival in Wales on the latest outcomes of research done through the university’s Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies project. People who can only speak one language take longer to recover from strokes, get early-onset dementia before multilinguals develop it and generally find it harder to concentrate, she says.

The ambitious project is aimed at combating the alarming drop in willingness in the UK to study other languages. The numbers are paradoxical: although more children indicate that they want to learn other languages at school, they lose interest at the end of their teenage years. From 2000 to 2015, the number of students taking courses in languages other than English dropped 57%.

The project’s work is of great interest for SA. While most South Africans can speak more than one language and several can speak more, the conventional wisdom is that learning another language is a luxury that should take second place to "economic skills" such as science and maths.

One of the six streams of the project is to find ways to persuade the British to become multilingual, but there is strong resistance despite such facts as 300 other languages being spoken in London.

Even figures showing that multinational companies — those offering the best salaries — would rather employ English-speaking Swiss people with the same qualifications than a typical Brit because they have to be proficient in three languages to pass at Swiss schools, fails to make an impression.

The British regard the acquisition of other languages as elitist, according to surveys conducted by the project.

Research on the health disadvantages of monolingualism, some produced by another project stream, ascertained whether there are physical differences between mono-and multilingual people.

In 2007 Canadian scientists found a correlation between "early-onset dementia" and monolingualism. Subjects who could speak only one language developed dementia four years earlier than bilinguals.

However, there were objections against the Canadian study and in 2011 the Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies project repeated it. To remove other causes, the Cambridge psychologists attached to the project sought an ideal sample group among their 30-odd collaborators across the world.

They settled on a group of people in Hyderabad, India, and the result was exactly the same: a gap of four years in the development of dementia.

"No drug can give you a four-year delay in early-onset dementia," Ayres-Bennett told the Hay Festival.

The project has also done work to debunk several myths about multilingualism. Ayres-Bennett says it is not true that bilingual people are better lovers than monolinguals. Neither are children little sponges able to soak up more languages than adults — there is no small window of language acquisition that closes after childhood.

Other findings from the project reinforce the general statement that acquiring another language is a kind of "mental gymnastics" that is good not only for minds, but also bodies.

In 2016 the project’s psychologists found a correlation between multilingualism and an early recovery from strokes. It also improves the ability to concentrate. The team launched a study using a common and efficient test to compare attention spans. This involves subjects standing in a simulated lift with sounds indicating whether it is going up or down. Other sounds are then introduced, forcing the subjects to concentrate more.

Using subjects who had been learning another language for a year, the project team found that multilinguals scored much better. They repeated the test with subjects studying another language for a week only and, while their results were not as good, the gap was still large.

Ayres-Bennett believes that the resistance against multilingualism is temporary. She was speaking mostly about British attitudes, pointing out that 20 years ago nobody wanted to study chemistry, but it is now all the rage.

Governments can do much to change attitudes, Ayres- Bennett’s talk suggests. She decried the absence of museums devoted to language in the UK, while "there are ones for dog collars and lawn mowers".

In SA, there is a museum at Paarl devoted to Afrikaans.

At another talk at the festival, speakers agreed that artificial intelligence could not fully be relied on to do translation work.

Cambridge University engineering researcher Marcus Tomalin recounted the history of translation by machines, the computer-based approaches used and statistical techniques applied, augmented by data-driven machine learning.

While machines can simulate the translation process, they will never be able to do so at a level of proper human communication. "They have nothing to do with language," Tomalin says of their inner workings, "they have nothing to do with words." They treat sentences as mathematical problems to be solved, seeking patterns between sets of data, rather than meaning.

However, man and machine can and do collaborate, he says.

Another obstacle is the constant mutations in languages. In a talk at the festival on English dialects, University of Swansea linguist Rob Penhallurick said "a living language is always changing, and we are entering another era of great change". Language and dialect also do not respect borders, he adds.

The Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies team of about 30 academics at four universities in the UK have a stream to study the dynamics of multilingualism in political contexts.

It can be successfully sold as a soft-power weapon in diplomatic and official circles.

Ayres-Bennett cited an initiative in Northern Ireland, where the Stormont parliament was dissolved after its members failed to agree to a post-Brexit language law.

The team found monolingualism to be a major stumbling block, with especially the Protestant Unionists believing that the Catholics in the province had annexed the Irish language as their own, to be shared only by their fellow Irish across the border. Guided by the project’s members, some Unionists have begun to learn Gaelic in a physical demonstration that no language belongs to one community alone.