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In my opinion: Learning Cornish language could have health benefits

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 18, 2014

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Much is said about the relative merits of promoting the Cornish language through education, bilingual road signs, and a greater understanding of our unique place-names.

Many argue that money and resources are being wasted on what they consider to be a “dead” language. And while it might be argued that Cornish as an everyday spoken language did decline during the 17th and 18th centuries, its influence can still be heard in dialect phrases to this day – and, of course, in the place-names we use every day.

A small number of enthusiasts, realising the many benefits of retaining and using the language, began what is known as the Cornish Revival in the early years of the 20th century. This movement continued through the decades, with huge leaps in learning coming particularly from the 1990s onwards.

Thanks to the work of these enthusiasts, the Cornish language is now, again, part of our life and culture in Cornwall, adding to our sense of distinctiveness and almost certainly helping to persuade the government in granting the Cornish minority status earlier this year.

However, the point of my discourse is not to shout about the Cornish language per se, but to draw readers’ attention to a new study which appears to show that bilingualism can delay the onset of age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Gaelic-speakers on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, says the study, could be key to understanding whether speaking two languages reduces the mental decline associated with old age.

Angela de Bruin, a PhD student from the University of Edinburgh, is looking at the connection between bilingualism and diminished cognitive decline and is carrying out tests on local volunteers in Stornoway.

Her work follows several studies which already show that speaking more than one language has a positive impact on mental performance, with some showing bilingualism delays the impact of ageing.

“The bilingual population on the Isle of Lewis is unique and valuable,” said Angela. “The Gaelic-English speaking population is a special and important group that could provide us with very valuable information about the effects of bilingualism. There are several studies that suggest bilinguals have a cognitive advantage over monolinguals because as a bilingual, your two languages are constantly active.

“The problem with previous studies is that they often tested a bilingual immigrant population. In this way, we can examine the effects of ‘knowing’ two languages versus ‘using’ two languages. Is ‘learning’ two languages enough to show an advantage? Or is it rather the ‘use’ of two languages that might be beneficial?”

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