Are Lewis bilinguals the key to staving off old age?

Angela de Bruin, a PhD student from the University of Edinburgh, will be on Lewis to carry out her study.
Angela de Bruin, a PhD student from the University of Edinburgh, will be on Lewis to carry out her study.

Gaelic speaking islanders could be key to understanding if speaking two languages can reduce the mental decline associated with old age.

Already several studies have shown bilingualism can delay the onset of age related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, but now volunteers from Lewis are being sought to help to prove that language is indeed at the centre of the findings.

“The bilingual population on the Isle of Lewis is unique and so valuable,” explained Angela de Bruin, a PhD student from the University of Edinburgh.

“The Gaelic-English speaking population is a special and important group that could provide us with very valuable information about the effects of bilingualism.”

Angela is studying the connection between bilingualism and diminished cognitive decline, and will arrive in Stornoway later this month to carry out a number of tests on local volunteers.

Angela said: “There are several studies that suggest bilinguals have a cognitive advantage over monolinguals.

“This is measured in various executive control tasks, for example tasks that require inhibition of irrelevant stimuli or task switching paradigms.

“As a bilingual, your two languages are constantly active, even when you are speaking in one language only.

“Speaking in one language means that you have to suppress your other language constantly. This implies that bilinguals have to practice language control on a daily basis.”

Already several studies show speaking more than one language has a positive impact on mental performance, with some showing bilingualism delays the impact of ageing.

“The problem with many of these studies,” Angela continued, “is that they often test a bilingual immigrant population.

“The monolinguals in these studies, however, are non-immigrants. A difference between bilinguals and monolinguals could then be the result of bilingualism, but could also be due to differences in immigration status.”

That is what is bringing the study to the islands, and the unique population living here in the Outer Hebrides.

Angela plans to compare test results of islanders who speak both Gaelic and English, to monolingual English speaking islanders.

The Lewis population also offers her the chance to looking into another aspect of the effects of language.

Angela said: “I am not only interested to meet Gaelic-English bilinguals who use both languages on a daily basis, but I am also looking for people who learned both languages as a child, but only used English during their later life.

“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?”

Angela is looking for two groups of healthy people aged 60 years or older in Lewis to take part in her study.

The first group is Gaelic-English bilinguals who learned both languages as a child and still use both Gaelic and English on a daily/weekly basis.

The second group is people who learned Gaelic and English as a child, but who now only use English. The study takes one and a half to two hours and consists of various computer tasks.

Anyone interested in taking part can contact Angela de Bruin on 07842781675 or send an email to