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Learning a Second Language Keeps Your Brain Young

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Parli Italiano? ¿Hablas Español? Can you speak more than one language? No matter how old you are, it’s not too late to learn. In fact, new research finally shows that learning a second (or third) language as an adult can help slow brain decline.

The benefits of bilingualism are no secret. Previous studies suggest people who regularly speak more than one language show a later onset of dementia and improved mental function. But there was always the pesky problem of correlation vs. causation: Were smarter people simply more likely to learn extra languages? Or were they smarter because they learned extra languages? A recent study from the University of Edinburgh is the strongest evidence yet that, indeed, learning a second language can improve your mental functions—even if you learn the language later in life.

The results come thanks to something called the Lothian Birth Cohort study. In 1947, 1100 11-year-old school children around Edinburgh, Scotland, were given cognitive tests. All of them spoke just one language at the time, but many went on to learn at least one other language as adults, making them (and their test scores) a gold mine for language researchers like Thomas Bak. And because “people of this generation don’t move around that much, it was possible trace them as well,” Bak tells mental_floss.

He and his team tracked down 853 of the original test subjects, now in their early 70s. One-third had learned to speak an additional language since the original test, and 65 of those became bilingual after turning 18. Some learned Gaelic, others learned French in school, or German. Others even traveled to Africa and learned African languages.

Bak gave the same cognitive tests to the original participants to compare their performance with that of their 11-year-old selves. The original scores set a baseline for measuring and predicting mental function: If they performed poorly at age 11, researchers predicted the subjects would also perform relatively poorly at age 73. If their original test scores were high, they would probably be high again at age 73. The results show that “people perform better than you would predict only on the basis of if they learn another language,” says Bak.

This is an important finding, Bak says, because for a long time it was believed that the only time to learn a second language was as a child, when your brain is still nice and sponge-y. This research says even learning it later has positive effects on mental function.

But what is it about language that is so good for our brains? Bak says the act of switching between several languages may give the brain a workout, since you have many more words and meanings to choose from before speaking. He compares it to the physical workout of swimming. “You are using most of your muscles and breathing and so on,” he says. “In being bilingual you’re activating a whole range of different mental functions.”

If you learn three, four, or even five languages, does your brain become stronger with each? Bak says this isn’t clear yet. In theory, the more languages you know, the more mental switches you’ll need to make when speaking, he says, but it’s hard to generalize about something as complicated as language. But there’s no harm in learning as many as possible.

And if you think you’re too old, just remember: our brains are designed for this. “Bilingualism might have been the original state of human communities,” Bak says. “It was more the rule than the exception. The fact we have this ability means in a way our brains are designed to do it.”

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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