Time: Why Speaking More than One Language May Delay Alzheimer’s

by , under All categories, Enrique

Comment: Migrant Tales doesn’t normally publish health stories but here is one that argues that speaking more than one language may help you escape for a while longer the devastating clutches of Alzheimer’s.

Just like speaking many languages keeps the brain fit, interacting and being a part of many cultures must do the same job. At least it isn’t a disadvantage unless prejudice is the rule in a society. 

In Finland, two associations, the secretive Suomen Sisu and Suomalaisuuden liitto,  believe that cultural diversity is a bad thing that must be opposed at all costs. One of the aims of the latter association is to undermine the role of the Swedish-language minority in Finland.

Both of these associations live in a historical time warp where they fantasize about a Finland that existed in fairy tale books. Both of them have recently gained more political power through parties like the right-wing populist Perussuomalaiset (PS).

The chairman of Suomalaisuuden liitto is Sampo Terho, the EuroMP that replaced PS chairman Timo Soini.

Thank you for the heads up Marcela Santafé y Soriano.

__________

By Meredith Melnick

There are many ways in which speaking another language may contribute to a well-lived life. You can talk to a whole lot more of Earth’s inhabitants, for one thing. You can also enjoy books, music and films in their original language, and throw a few more “skills” onto your résumé. Now add to that list the findings of new studies suggesting that speaking multiple languages may also help protect cognitive health over the long term.

  1. Method

    Sometimes I wonder if there should only be one language in the world. I think it’s highly irrational in these times of globalization to everyone to have their own language. So, while talking about Finland being single language, why not change it to English?

    From what I’ve understood, before all this Fennomania and nationalism, language was only a tool. It really changed alot, many language groups ceased to exist, because no one talked their language.

    • Enrique

      Method, globalization has its good and bad points like any phenomenon. On the one hand all cultures should live together but who will decide which language and culture predominates? We have to go further than language and culture. I have sometimes jokingly spoken of a chip that would make us fluent in any language automatically. Because these last two things are not possible from our time perspective to grasp never mind implement, tolerance and acceptance still is the best answer.

      Did you know that there are about 6,000 different languages spoken globally. 3,000 of these are expected to become extinct by the end of the century. Widely spoken languages like English, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and others. English is made up of words from 350 languages.

  2. Seppo

    If language was only a means of communication, a tool, then that might make sense.

    But language is so much more, most importantly culture and identity.

    A culture is always created and preserved in some language and every language carries a culture in its words and expressions. In most cases, when a language disappeares, so does a culture. Of course the people who spoke that language do not vanish as such, but as they usually will become assimilated into a bigger language and cultural community, little remains of their cultural features. They don’t constitute a separate group anymore but melt into the bigger group.

    Language is also identity. One of the most important things that makes me me is my mother tongue, Finnish. I could not imagine a situation where I would be deprived of my native language. My mother tongue is also a major element among those that make me feel Finnish. So it is a huge part of my both personal and social identity.

    I do admit that certain grups can preserve their “groupness” even though they change their language. But in cases that gropus change to a language that is spoken by a bigger and dominating group, they runn a high riks of being assimilated into that bigger group.

  3. Method

    Seppo, I’m not talking about me or you. I’m talking about the future. These changes do not happen now, but through generations. You can’t stop people talking what they like, but a governement can make changes to support and not support. If I remember correctly, Finnish language is bases on a tribal language that overcame the rest. There were many languages in this area. It also survived the Swedes and the Russians, but not because the Finns are so cool and tough. For one because the Swedish rich and powerful had it them to conserve it. Finnish culture, Finnish language and Finnish identity is a hobby of the “better people”, an artificial creation. I for one don’t like the thought, but that’s what it seems to me.

    Enrique, your jokingly spoken chip isn’t that far from reality. It propably won’t be a chip though, but a handheld device that translates in real time. Some language translate better than others though, it seems. When you fool around with Google translate for example, you tend to get more meaningful translations when you translate to English instead of Finnish. Even from arabic.

    No I didn’t know that. But I believe in cultural evolution, the fittest will remain. I’d like to think in languages it means the most useful, but it might also mean which language speakers are the most aggressive in defending it.

  4. Seppo

    – “You can’t stop people talking what they like, but a governement can make changes to support and not support.”

    Right. I hope the Finnish government will strongly support the Finnish language since there is no other government in this world which could do it. Strong support needs to given to the Sami languages as well since they are about to become extinct if nothing is done. In the end, of course, individuals have to be allowed to speak which ever language they want.

    – “If I remember correctly, Finnish language is bases on a tribal language that overcame the rest. There were many languages in this area. It also survived the Swedes and the Russians, but not because the Finns are so cool and tough. For one because the Swedish rich and powerful had it them to conserve it.”

    You don’t remember quite correctly. Modern standard Finnish is based on a combination of different dialects spoken on these lands. The southern and south-western features dominate, though. There were not that many separate languages in this area. The various dialects were most closely related to each other. Swedish arrived some 800 years ago and still exists. Sami has been here the longest. It is also related to Finnish but not that closely. Sami hasn’t been spoken in Southern and Central parts of Finland since the Finnic tribes arrived.

    Finnish survived the Swedes for many reasons, the most important of which was probably the simple fact that Swedes didn’t actively try to Swedify Finnish-speakers but let them speak their own language. 95 % of the Finnish-speakers were illiterate farmers who felt no pressure to adopt the Swedish language. Swedes did not actively support Finnish language either – all administration and schooling happened in Swedish only. In the 19th century Finnish became the symbol of the emerging Finnish nation and only then was it given active support.

    When it comes to Russians, there were some Russification attempts which failed miserably. Here I would say that it was indeed mostly because Finns were tough – they simply refused to learn any Russian. It was an honor to get the lowest possible grade in Russian language at school.

    – “Finnish culture, Finnish language and Finnish identity is a hobby of the “better people”, an artificial creation.”

    All languages and identities are social constructs, artificial creations. This does not mean that they are not real or important. Furthermore, they are in most cases based on actual, existing elements which are then combined and modified in a certain way. And yes, the Finnish national identity, like all national identities, started as a project of the elites. But it has ever since been very widely accepted by the population.

    – “But I believe in cultural evolution, the fittest will remain. I’d like to think in languages it means the most useful, but it might also mean which language speakers are the most aggressive in defending it.”

    These are quite tough ideas. Do you also believe in racial evolution, the fittest will remain?

    No language is inherently more or less “useful” than some other. Languages become popular and widely spoken when their native speakers have a lot cultural, political and economic power. This was the case of Latin in the time of the Roman Empire and this is now the case of English in the time of USA. And yes, this often involves aggression.

    I don’t want to believe that there is a war going on between cultures and languages where the strongest will eventually eat out the weaker. Like Enrique, I would like to believe that we can tolerate and accept different cultures and languages.

    However, like I argued in my first comment, my mother tongue is so important to me that I am willing to fight for it if I feel like it’s under a threat.

  5. Method

    “Right. I hope the Finnish government will strongly support the Finnish language since there is no other government in this world which could do it. Strong support needs to given to the Sami languages as well since they are about to become extinct if nothing is done. In the end, of course, individuals have to be allowed to speak which ever language they want.”

    Well, as I see it, it’s not much longer to be decided by the Finnish governement. We’re moving towards a federation. I don’t doubt there will be a common language at some point, and I think it’ll be English. Good question is, what will Finns be without Finland?

    “You don’t remember quite correctly. Modern standard Finnish is based on a combination of different dialects spoken on these lands. The southern and south-western features dominate, though. There were not that many separate languages in this area. The various dialects were most closely related to each other. Swedish arrived some 800 years ago and still exists”

    Well, according to some linguists, Finnish has been spoken for some 1500 years, and before that there were tribes that spoke their own languages plus 3-4 others. The oldest words are in names of places. Before Finnish, there was some unknown language.

    “All languages and identities are social constructs, artificial creations. This does not mean that they are not real or important. ”

    It means, they can be redefined however you wish. Smoke and mirrors to rule and deceive. What do they say about shit? Even if million flies love it, it’ll still be shit.

    “These are quite tough ideas. Do you also believe in racial evolution, the fittest will remain?”

    Is there such a thing as racial evolution? If you want to discuss about it, first you have to define races. Those definitions seem to differ a lot, and I for one can’t make any sense from them that’ll give me any reasonable explanations to the world around. But when it comes to evolution, I don’t need to believe in it. Evolution happens. It does not understand positives or negatives or respect ideologies, it just happens. Cultural evolution is a bit different, because it’s not a force of nature, only nature in it, is brought in by humans.

    “I don’t want to believe that there is a war going on between cultures and languages where the strongest will eventually eat out the weaker. Like Enrique, I would like to believe that we can tolerate and accept different cultures and languages.

    However, like I argued in my first comment, my mother tongue is so important to me that I am willing to fight for it if I feel like it’s under a threat.”

    Not the strongest, the fittest. The most fit. Maybe the most efficient. Efficiency is dependant on what the surroundings, the time we live in ask from us.

    We’re at war all the time, this time it’s an economical war going on right now. As much as I’d like to think it’s all just coincidence what’s happening around the world right now, the more I read about these things, the less random it seems. It may of course be my own will to rationalize getting the best of me. They are playing the big game, and in a game, there tends to be a loser in the end. Whatever it may bring, a real war isn’t that far fetched. Nation after nation is falling in to the chaos, the weaker ones first, but in the end, no one’s safe. That’s another thing about globalization: one goes, everyone goes. The puzzle falls apart piece by piece. Then there will be real and true racism, like there is now in Greece. When everyone’s at the lowest step of the hierarchy of needs, you’ll get all kinds of crazy things.

    That’s what we should as a nation try to prevent from happening, not focusing on the little things. But as I see it – and it really saddens me – we aren’t. I’m not sure if we could. This might be a sign that the time of nations is at end.

    • Enrique

      –Well, as I see it, it’s not much longer to be decided by the Finnish governement. We’re moving towards a federation. I don’t doubt there will be a common language at some point, and I think it’ll be English. Good question is, what will Finns be without Finland?

      Come on Method you seem to have a head on your shoulder. How could the EU becoming a federation make the Finnish language extinct? If you see a federative EU as some devastating cultural force, it would only fuel nationalism. This is just another argument on a long list about “how Finland will be overrun by hoards.”

      Despite the devastation that humans reap nature will find the way to survive in some form. Culture is a bit the same way. Since it is a tool to function with a group(s), society will find a way to see another day. Cultures are resilient and highly adaptable. The more adaptable they are the better. Does seeing the outside world as a threat enhance adaption? Does it make your culture stronger or weaker? I personally believe it makes it weaker.

  6. Method

    “Come on Method you seem to have a head on your shoulder. How could the EU becoming a federation make the Finnish language extinct? If you see a federative EU as some devastating cultural force, it would only fuel nationalism. This is just another argument on a long list about “how Finland will be overrun by hoards.” ”

    Well, isn’t it somewhat devastating? It’s a big change, and in that, the old nations and people still living in them in their minds are a nuisance. It’s not a marketing issue, selling ideas to people backfires when they find out what’s going on. You need to facing the things in order to adapt – whether you like those things or not. But no, I don’t think it’ll make anything extinct for a while. Every big change will have it’s share of crisis, even bloodshed. Maybe not this time, but the finger points to us: Are we different from the people who were before us? I wouldn’t bet my euro money on it.

    The modern Euro sceptism is a grand example how things go when you decide for the people and market it with half truths. Finland went to eurozone without asking the citizens. And they marketed the EU itself with half truths. Those are few of the things that backfired in the last election, because people weren’t really commited to it in the first place, just politicians. Ok, it’s only about 20%-50% (we can’t know about those who didn’t vote). But SDP also took a euro sceptic approach before the elections. Now they’re really not sticking to it, and guess who benefits from that, if any? Yes, the PS.

  7. Seppo

    – “We’re moving towards a federation. I don’t doubt there will be a common language at some point, and I think it’ll be English. Good question is, what will Finns be without Finland?”

    Do you think this is kind of development is unstoppable or even desirable? I don’t think so. Neither do most Finns. Whether or not it is true, the idea that EU and other international cooperation is a threat to the Finnish language and identity, is definitely one of the reasons why Persut are gaining in support.

    I am strongly for deeper economical and political cooperation between the different countries in Europe but I don’t think it has to mean that we need to give up our own culture, language and identity. However, if it seems that that is the case, I would become quite euro-sceptic, too.

    – “It means, they can be redefined however you wish.”

    Yes, this is true. Elsewhere in this blog I was arguing for a reformulation of Finnishness, what it is and means to be a Finn. This kind of rethinking is possible if we want to have it.

    – “It’s a big change, and in that, the old nations and people still living in them in their minds are a nuisance.”

    In which sense am I and my fellow Finns who fit your description a nuisance?

    And again, is that big change inevitable, and is it preferable? If no, then we can try to fight it. Or maybe in a more constructive manner, try to direct it in a less devastating direction that is more acceptable for all of us. Cause the change you are describing does not sound good.

  8. JusticeDemon

    Returning to the original point of this thread…

    One persistent finding of demographic research in Finland is that native speakers of Swedish live significantly longer healthier lives on average than native speakers of Finnish, irrespective of occupation, income and comparable factors. Markku T. Hyyppä has focused in general on the idea of social capital as an explanation for this, but we can also surmise that a high degree of functional, active bilingualism is an important factor.

    The paper linked above includes the following observation:

    Ever since epidemiological health surveys have been published in Finland, the total mortality rates have favored the Swedish‐speaking minority. (The earliest reports date back to the 1930s.) Significant disparities have been established in the annual suicide rates, violent and accidental death rates, and especially in cardiovascular mortality … These findings are internationally exceptional since the reported mortality rates do not often favor ethnic minorities. The fact that Swedish speakers live longer than the Finnish‐speaking majority is very interesting from the health promotion point of view, especially if the disparity is culture rather than place related …

    Suicide is an option chosen by individuals who feel that they are otherwise out of options, and this can arise from a narrowing of world view. Functional bilingualism tends to expand an individual’s world view, which forms from more than one perspective and includes more provisional and contrastive elements. We might describe this as a form of conceptual binocular vision that gives depth and substance to our perceptions. Similar breadth of world view may discourage violence and unnecessary risk-taking.

    There is more to functional, active bilingualism than merely knowing another language.

  9. Seppo

    This are interesting results in many ways.

    Not trying to deny the positive effects of active bilingualism, I would like to point out that a great number of Swedish-speaking Finns are not actively bilingual. I would go as far as to say that in the 1930s and even a few decades after that, more or less monolingual Swedish-speakers were still in the majority among that group.

    The majority of Swedish-speakers in the Österbotten (Pohjanmaa) region don’t speak much Finnish to this day. However, they are also healthier and live longer than Finnish-speakers.

    So there is a lot more to it than active bilingualism. There is something about the culture, way of life, that make them life heatlthier. Similarily, it is not the monolingualism that makes Finns commit suicides, but the reasons are cultural here as well.

  10. Karo

    There were and there still are many swedish-speaking folks that speak very little or no Finnish, third of them I think counting the ones living in Åland. Again third of swedish-speakers can be considered fluent or bilingual.

    Judging from Seppos reply it is possible that many of swedish speakers who can’t speak Finnish much or at all live in Österbotten (Pohjanmaa).

    Well, Juha Ruusuvuori in his excellent book Muukalainen Muumilaaksossa: eli asutko vieläkin Taalintehtaalla? gives an excellent view on the life of the southern shoreswedes. It indeed presents their culture of having more positive attidu to life and socialising in general. Did you know that swedis-speakers were firsto celebrate pikkujoulu (lilla jul)? There are actually very few accounts of the dark-side of the swedish-speakers culture, allthough there must exist at least a few.

  11. Jonas

    I would agree with Seppo on this. Certainly in the 1930s, a very large number Swedish-speakers were not functionally bilingual – possibly a majority. My grandparents did not know Finnish above anything more than a very rudimentary level. You can still read stories in Borgåbladet (and doubtless also other Swedish language papers) about elderly pensioners in Sibbo and so on ringing to the taxi switchboard (or sometimes more seriously to 112 for an ambulance) and the person answering not being able to speak to them in Swedish. So, it is not even unknown in the south.The demographic change has occurred very quickly in many areas in Nyland/Uusimaa. People born in 80% Swedish-speaking areas can find themselves at the end of their days as a minority of 20% or less.

    It’s not the Swedish language per se that ensures we are less likely to kill ourselves or feel depressed or be sick. It’s cultural. It’s hard to address this without using stereotypes, so I will try to avoid them. I would say that because we are a minority group we have a greater awareness of our identity. It’s more important to us. It’s under threat, and thus is not taken for granted. I think this is part of the explanation for our traditional heavy involvement in “associations”, of all sorts (educational, literary, local-based, sports, the list is endless). That is perhaps the biggest difference between “Svenskfinland” and the Finnish-speaking Finland, the ‘association life’. In the more bilingual areas, I think we join them to ensure we have somewhere to speak our exclusively our language. But, it is also a major part of the culture of the ‘Swedish-speaking world’, be that in Sweden or in Finland. I think it makes for a more close-knit society, we have – to a greater extent – people to rely upon and people to look out for us. Without trying to make the Finnish-speaking society seem cold, I think that Karo is right, we generally live a more friendly existence. I think that goes a long way to explain the much lower suicide statistics. Less people end up “outside” of society in the Swedish-speaking areas.

    That said, I am sure that JusticeDemon is right – active bilingualism does lead to less narrow-mindedness. I don’t think it is a coincidence that it has often been Swedish-speaking politicians who have spoken the loudest about immigrant rights and also taken up the issue of the Sami’s rights, despite the fact that they are unlikely to win many votes in either area. The membership of a minority group also makes it easier to empathise with other non-mainstream groups.

    Incidentally, a few years ago someone worked out that the fact that Swedish-speakers are far less often pensioned off early due to illness more than pays for the state’s official bilingualism in terms of the extra tax revenue we pay in from working longer and the less welfare money we take out in terms of illness pensions.

    • Enrique

      Hi Jonas, what surprises me a lot in Finland is that a visible minority is still pushing this antiquated notion about who we are (the prototype Finn social construct of the last century). While there may be historical reasons for this, they are not valid today unless you want to exclude and coerce others into a very narrow definition of culture. Therefore, Swedish-speaking Finns represent one important gem of our cultural diversity as a nation.

      If we look at the Suomalaisuuden liitto, one of whose aims is to attack Swedish-speaking Finns, have been taken over by a bunch of right-wing nationalists who forge history to suit their myopic goals. People ask me why I am so critical of the Perussuomalaiset? I don’t think that it is a difficult question to answer. Any group that denies my history, my rights and my identity will not get a red-carpet welcome (I am trying to be civil and diplomatic).

      If these groups throw a striking blow at the Swedish-speaking Finns, the next one in line will be other minorities. It will never end because hatred is the food that keeps that monster from moving.

      I would love for someone to convince me that I am wrong. That all that I am saying is just a figment of my imagination.

  12. Hannu

    Swedish-speaking Finns are assaulting against us and while they are doing it they dont deserve any respect.
    When swedish is removed from law and swedes do understand that finnish is language of this country then we can talk again,

    • Enrique

      Hannu, you are being ridiculous, intolerant and obnoxious. That ‘s all PS propaganda a la Homma and Scripta. Stay away from that stuff. It is hazardous to your objective perception of things.

  13. JusticeDemon

    Hannu

    You really should not drink so much before you post here. Haven’t the PS taught you how to make your racism salonkikelpoinen?

    Are you Billy no-mates in disguise?

  14. Rasmus

    I wonder if anyone is watching Svensk sommar i Finland on FST5 just now, also on Yle Areena. Not at all an intellectual programme, but a nice idea. The hosts find two Finnish-speakers and take them for a long weekend in a Swedish-speaking area to experience Swedish culture. It’s entertainment programme, but interesting.

  15. Mary Mekko

    According to such theories, immigrants who move to the USA and learn English should live longer than the Americans who do not know a second language. I think that you’ll find no such great results, especially amongst Spanish-speaking groups such as Mexicans. Their lives are shorter for other reasons, not their bilingual abilities making it shorter or longer, or it could even be simply genetic. Bilingual abilities are certainly great for the individual, making his or her life more interesting, more varied, if he/she takes advantage of the opportunities that come along with careers, travelling, romance or just music and fun.

    I work with a lot of bilingual and trilingual tourists from around the world. Their lives seem fuller and richer, they are certainly usually better informed than monolingual Americans or Canadians or Latin Americans, but on the other hand, isn’t it because they have a higher standard of living (usually) which gave them the chance for the education and travel, that then gave them their bilingual skills?

    Finns can certainly learn a foreign language for any reason -fun, travel, computer work, music, romance, career improvement – but if it’s a smart Finns she/he will learn ENGLISH and then conquer the world. After that, well, then, maybe Italian, Romanian and so on….

    I’ve had some Finns lately on a private SUV tour. Their English was excellent, and they were Swedish-speaking Finns who spoke also German, Finnish, and some French.

    They loved hearing me mispronounce all those old words I learned in Keskisuomi, such as Juustomesteri, maitoa, hyvaa matka, and some bad swear words, too.

    Ah, Brita Koivenen! I love looking up old Finnish music on Youtube!!!

    Mary

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