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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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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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