Merel Keijzer is studying how learning a new language can help with healthy aging. Prof. Keijzer, Professor of English Linguistics and English as a Second Language at the Faculty of Arts, is one of eight winners of the Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research 2023. ‘The link between language and health is much more important than we think.’
When Merel Keijzer started her final secondary school exams in 1998, she wasn’t envisaging a career in linguistics. ‘A lot of my final subjects were languages, but I’d applied for a degree programme in orthopedagogy. I started to get doubts a few weeks before my programme was due to begin and switched to English at the very last minute.’
Keijzer developed a strong preference for linguistics during her programme. ‘I particularly enjoyed the course units on how people learn languages, for example. So I started taking course units in Applied Linguistics. I learned how to set up a research project, and how to gather and analyse data. It was a process that fascinated me back then, and still does. I see it in my PhD students too. The various phases of thinking about the research protocol, finding participants, gathering data and then, when you get to the data analysis part, that exciting “here it comes” moment: were our predictions right, if so, why, and if not, why not? It didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted a career in research.’
Keijzer’s PhD research involved studying the loss of language skills among Dutch emigrants in Canada. ‘You’d think that the longer people have lived outside the Netherlands, the worse their Dutch would get. But some of the older participants in my study seemed to be losing their English and increasingly reverting to Dutch. This caused all kinds of problems, in the communication with their doctor, for example, or even with their children if they had never learned to speak Dutch.’
After being awarded a PhD, Keijzer was awarded a grant to conduct further research into the use of the first language, this time in a group of Dutch seniors in Australia. Contrary to what she had initially assumed, they didn’t seem to be speaking more Dutch, but they were having difficulty separating the English and Dutch languages. ‘As you get older, certain brain functions deteriorate, including the ability to inhibit. As a result, languages tend to interfere with each other. The seniors in Australia used all kinds of English words when speaking Dutch, and Dutch words when speaking English.’
In 2013, Keijzer was appointed Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts in Groningen, where she carried out research into the relationship between language and ageing. ‘At the time, most of our knowledge revolved around the negative aspects of aging and language: the fact that people’s hearing deteriorated, they started to speak more slowly, were less able to understand new words. I wanted to see whether language could have a positive effect during later life.’
There was already evidence that multilingualism, the ability to speak two or more languages, had a positive effect on cognitive and mental health. Keijzer wondered whether learning a second language in later life would also generate these positive health effects. ‘If you are proficient in more than one language and regularly speak different languages, these different languages are always active in the brain. You need cognitive flexibility to ensure that you don’t constantly muddle them up. In other words, people who speak more than one language are training their brains.’
Keijzer also noticed that you need this flexibility in order to learn a new language. She founded the Bilingualism and Aging Lab (BALAB), and together with her research group monitored a group of people between 65 and 85 years old, who were learning a new language. They noticed positive effects, but not only in their ability to master the new language. ‘If you train your brain over a period of time, you also see effects that are unconnected to language: you can concentrate better, you become more resilient to setbacks, you can switch between tasks more easily, and you find it easier to make decisions. These effects are often more apparent as people grow older. This is because the parts of the brain needed to learn a new language and speak more than one language, are the parts that tend to deteriorate as people age.’
One of the research projects that Keijzer carried out in association with Lifelines and the UMCG among 11,000 senior citizens in the Northern Netherlands, revealed that multilingualism improved people’s memory and sense of wellbeing. Playing a musical instrument has the same effect. ‘Of course you hit the jackpot if you’re multilingual and play an instrument’, says Keijzer. ‘We saw the biggest effect in this group, in terms of both memory and wellbeing.’
Keijzer wants to learn more about the links between language and health. ‘The two are much more interconnected than you would think. Are people who aren’t fluent in Dutch less likely to be correctly diagnosed if medical tests are carried out in the Netherlands? And as people age or develop dementia, in which language are they happiest talking about their problems? A doctor or nurse may find it easier to reassure, understand, and provide information to patients if they use the language that these patients are most comfortable with. Medical science tends to rely on pharmaceutical solutions for age-related conditions. My research shows that it is important to take language into account too; in terms of prevention, diagnostics, and treatment. Language should be seen as an aspect of the healing process.’
Together with Hanze University of Applied Science and the lectorate in Healthy Aging, Keijzer recently started a new research project into the role of language and motor skills in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. ‘When people start to develop dementia, their use of language starts to change. They struggle to find words and may even stammer slightly. We are trying to find out whether we can use language as part of the diagnostic process, particularly in combination with motor changes. Can we analyse language and speech to see if something is going on, and if so, whether further tests are needed?’
Keijzer hopes that people will continue to learn new skills throughout their lives. ‘When we started our research in which over-65s learned a new language, some people thought we were mad. They thought that aging was complex enough, without hassling people to learn a new language. Luckily, this assumption has been reversed. This stage of life is now considered to be a good time to learn something new. I think it’s great that learning a new language can enrich someone’s life and potentially give them many more years of good health.’
Although the Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research only bears her name, Merel Keijzer sees it as a triumph for her entire research group. ‘I don’t know any researchers who come to their conclusions without the backing of a team.’ The prize money of €350,000 will enable Keijzer to appoint a post-doc researcher to her group.
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