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Can a language course promote healthy aging?

The western world is ageing. We are all living longer and, of course, we all want to stay in good health. Healthy ageing is a matter of body and mind. This means we also have to train our brain if we want to maintain our mental agility for as long as possible. What is the best way to do that? In 2018, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) awarded a VIDI grant to professor of English Linguistics and English as a Second Language, Merel Keijzer, to investigate this issue with her team. What impact does learning a foreign language have on the aging brain?

Keijzer explains the idea behind this research project: ‘We know from previous research that multilingual people benefit from their language skills in old age. Their brain seems to be better equipped to counteract normal aging processes, such as mild memory loss. If you use more than one language every day, you have to switch a lot between them – you become a mental juggler. That's how I got the idea that learning a foreign language could also be used as a therapy for elderly people with mild memory loss, and that it might even have a preventive effect. Learning a foreign language is a real challenge for your brain; it involves all kinds of areas and connections. But other forms of learning and social interaction might also produce a similar positive effect.’ Keijzer devised an experiment to put her theory to the test. She needed older test subjects who would then be divided into three groups. One group would learn a foreign language, the second would learn to play the guitar and the third group would come together to do something creative. The first group of elderly people, who suffer from mild memory complaints, has already started.

Senior Language Learners in the middle of their English lesson
Senior Language Learners in the middle of their English lesson

Everyone can connect to language in some way

For this research to be a success, Keijzer has to rely on the help of a lot of people. She contacted the LOI to ensure that the elderly test subjects could work on their English or play the guitar on a daily basis. “Older people aren’t really their target group, but they still thought it would be interesting to participate in the research. The elderly test subjects also meet regularly for lessons. People from our own team are running the language lessons, but for the guitar lessons and creative sessions we needed students from the Minerva Art Academy, Noorderpoort College and the Prins Claus Conservatoire. Those creative sessions are great fun, but the test subjects who have been assigned to that creative group are a bit disappointed. They had hoped that they would be learning at least some fun watercolour techniques. But we want to measure what happens when they come together and don't learn complex new things.’

‘For the next group, we're looking for elderly people who don’t have memory problems. It’s easier to pique the interest of people who are highly educated, but they are also more likely to speak more than one language, so we can't measure the effects. We really have to do our best to make sure the group is representative. That’s why we’ve contacted organizations such as Biblionet and local senior citizens’ organizations, and we have also come up with a citizens’ science project. For this, PhD student Mara van der Ploeg goes into schools to train students, so that they can take on the role of researcher and interview their grandparents. From these interviews we hope to find answers to questions like: How do older people prefer to learn a foreign language? What do they find difficult and what do they do to make learning easier at an advanced age?’

This is not Merel Keijzer’s first socially relevant study; she previously researched spelling problems among Dutch students learning English and language loss in multilingual elderly people. For Keijzer, that’s a no-brainer: ‘Language is there to be used and it is precisely when we use it that we can see just how complex it is. It’s a miracle that we understand each other most of the time, and effortlessly find the right words and learn new ones. The great thing is that everyone can connect to language in some way. You may or may not be interested in sport or music, but there’s no getting around language. We all use it. That’s why linguists should do everything they can to make their research accessible to a wide audience. After all, our work is beneficial to everyone!’

The Balab team
The Balab team

Team Science and interdisciplinary research

This research is being carried out by a team of two PhD students, five interns and a research assistant. ‘We call ourselves the Bilingual Aging Lab (Balab) and meet every Thursday. This idea of research being a team effort is increasingly being embraced and promoted, which I think is a good thing. You shouldn’t be doing research on your own. We discuss methods and results, give each other feedback on presentations and move forward together. Our group is also open to other interested parties, and students from other universities and researchers from other disciplines can easily get involved.’

The team itself is also a representation of various disciplines; PhD student Saskia Nijmeijer was able to make a start thanks to a Young Academy Groningen (YAG) grant, and is supervised by Merel Keijzer and Marie José van Tol (Cognitive neuroscience, UMCG) and André Aleman (neuropsychology, UMCG). How are you enjoying interdisciplinary collaboration? Keijzer: ‘It’s great! I think it’s also necessary, because this project is not just about language – it’s also about education, brains and therapy. It's strange that those worlds are separated. Marie José was always told: Stay away from language, it's too complicated. While I don’t know very much about the therapy aspect and all the things that come with it. I have learned a lot by drawing up medical ethics protocols, for example. Collaboration will broaden our field and methods, and that can only be a good thing. André Aleman and I also applied to carry out research using Lifelines data. We happened to be looking for the same things and we were able to bundle them together.’

International competition and co-operation

Similar studies have since been launched in other countries. ‘Third age language learning, learning a language after you’ve retired, is also being studied in Tromsø, Salzburg and Sydney. So, we will have to see who publishes their results first and how they relate to each other. We also have good collaborations with partners in the US. Eleonara Rossi (Florida State University) and Judith Kroll (University of California Riverside) are studying the influence of environmental language using the same approach. If you learn English in the Netherlands, you have the advantage that you hear a lot of English outside the classroom. That’s why in America they are teaching Dutch to the elderly – a language that they will definitely not come across in their environment. I’m really excited to see what the results will be!’

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Last modified:29 July 2019 6.01 p.m.
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