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By Pam Burke 

Second language soup for the brain


November 8, 2013

A while back I mentioned here in my column that I have zero ability to speak foreign languages, now, according to a pack of smart researchers, this failing has put the future health and well being of my brain in great peril.

Scientists from Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India, and from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland studied people in a memory clinic in India — a country where even the average person speaks as many as four languages (4!)— and they found that being bilingual will hold off three types of dementia for an average of 4.5 years.

JoNel Aleccia of NBC News Health reported Wednesday on these findings which were printed in the journal Neurology, which means it was in a scientific publication so it has to be true.

So my quest since Wednesday has been to learn a foreign language, a sort of exercise of calisthenics for the brain, like mental push-ups and jumping jacks or jogging your memory, literally.

Logical step number one was to decide which language I wanted to learn, which, of course, meant going straight to Google Translate to see which language seemed the most approachable.

Google and I immediately ruled out any language written in characters which were not distinguishable as from the English alphabet.

This automatically means any languages written in cyrillic — those odd letters used to write Russian and languages from most other countries formerly known as Eastern Bloc.

It also means no languages that I will crudely lump together as Asian because I was so totally confused by my first attempt at researching them that I quit after about 30 seconds. Who among you can blame me after reading this from Wikipedia: “Japanese is an agglutinative, mora-timed language with simple phonotactics, a pure vowel system, phonemic vowel and consonant length, and a lexically significant pitch-accent.”

I'm not even entirely certain that the explanation is in English. I mean, it looks like English, but … you be the judge.

It also rules out Arabic languages. Sure, they look all pretty and flowy, and street signs would look like works of art, but, no, don't care, that is not an alphabet.

Unfortunately, it also rules out Egyptian hieroglyphics, which are cool, but I'm pretty sure you'll back me up on the decision once I tell you this: A sample from just one handwritten papyrus scroll includes at least four different birds, a snake, a bowl, an image that looks like two legs running and an eyeball among numerous indistinguishable marks and shapes.

That's not a language for me. I'm no tomb raider.

So that basically steered me toward European languages.

Northern European languages, like Polish, Finnish and Swedish, look like the English alphabet, but they add too many extra slashes, dots and squiggles. And Dutch, I'm pretty sure is just a pretend language: "Deze taal is vreemd." (i.e. "This language is strange." Indeed.)

I'm Irish so how about: "Mae'r iaith yn dramor." That's making Dutch nonsense look better.

I considered going back to my German roots, but their language sounds angry or drunken, or like an angry drunk, all the time, so I headed closer to home and am proud to report that I am now well on my way to learning Canadian.

Essentially, it's a lot like English but with more "ooo" sounds and "eh?" accents.

My brain feels aboot as goood as ever, eh?

(Even when I write it, you can almost understand it at pam@viewfromthenorth40.com.)


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