Posted by: patenttranslator | February 25, 2011

Not Only Are Translators Normal – They Also Stay Sane Longer Than Monolingual People in This Crazy World

There was an interesting discussion on the Transubstantiation blog last year which continued for months after a post was published on the blog with the provocative title “Are Translators Normal?” Seventy comments have been posted so far on the subject, and new ones still keep trickling in, from translators and a few non-translators, mostly their spouses who for some reason like to say that translators are crazy as loons. Some translators seem to be offended how anybody could even ask such a rude question, while a significant minority refuse to be “normal”, whatever that is, which would include this mad patent translator.

However, it’s official now – not only are people who know more languages than just one sane, but they are also better able to suppress what used to be called senility, old age dementia, sclerosis and all kinds of other names. They call it mostly Alzheimer’s now, probably to spite Japanese people because this is a word that no Japanese person can pronounce.

It’s not that translators are necessarily smarter (wouldn’t we be making more money if we were really smart?), but we did figure out how to use a part of our brain that most people simply never bother to put to use. According to this news report, a research team led by Dr. Ellen Bialystock, a bilingualism researcher at York University in Toronto, looked at the medical records of 228 patients at a memory clinic who had been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s and compared them to their language abilities. She found that on average monolingual people who made their first doctor’s appointment to address Alzheimer’s symptoms were aged 71.4, compared to 75.5 for bilingual people. Dr Bialystok calls the advantage that bilingual people have an improved cognitive reserve, which is “the same as the reserve tank in a car: ‘Once the brain runs out of fuel, it can go a little farther’. Bilingual people can use this reserve to fight off Alzheimer a little longer than monolingual people, although this does not prevent or stop the disease”.

It occurred to me a long time ago, long before this newspaper article was published, that people who speak several languages must use their brain differently than monolingual people. One category of people who have few problems with learning a foreign language are little people, children. Children are simply not hung up on what grownups call native tongue before their own native language is fully developed sometime during puberty. As I wrote in this piece, I had a childhood friend by the name of Vasek who learned German every summer because his grandmother could only speak German, only to forget it during the rest of the year. And when my son was three years old, he could not really speak any language yet, but he understood Chinese because his babysitter in San Francisco, Mrs. Took, was Chinese and he was surrounded by Chinese children and adults in Mrs. Took’s house. Unfortunately, although children can learn foreign languages easily, they will forget them just as easily if they don’t use them because the brain retains mostly only what is needed.

Adults who learn foreign languages need to make a much greater effort than children because their native language is fully developed and “locked” in the part of their brain that is used for this purpose. But unlike children who can pick up a language with enthusiasm only to throw it away later like an unwanted toy, adults can retain the foreign language if they continue making the effort. With pain comes gain.


Now that we know that if we are lucky, we will die of cancer or in a car accident before our brain is claimed by Alzheimer’s, the question is what will we do during the remaining lucid period of our life?

This may seem wildly optimistic, but I think that translators could use what one could call the lucid years to access other parts of their brain which store information about other things than languages as well. It is said that most people use only a really small part of their brain anyway, something like 20 percent, I think.

Maybe we could use the remaining lucid years in our life to finally figure out how to get paid rush rates for working over the weekend. Or how to find customers who pay good rates and on time.

If we could actually pull off something like that, I think that most people would have to agree that translators really are normal.


  1. Because of a rare and not readily diagnosable illness (now fortunately stopped), my wife was a frequent “guest” of university clinics in Germany. She tried to pass it off lightly and at one point would ask every neurologist that examined her this question:

    “What was Alzheimer’s first name?”

    Interestingly, most of them didn’t know.

    “See, that’s how it all starts,” she would say.

    Usually, she got a laugh out fo them.

    One day, we went to see her nephew in his office at the local city council. He is a clever chap, quick on the draw, never misses a beat.

    She asked him the same question.

    He quickly opened Wikipedia in his browser, typed in “alzheimer” and proudly announced:


    This time, we really had a good laugh.

    Needless to say, my wife speaks two languages.


  2. Once you stop teaching kids Latin, the entire civilization goes down the drain.


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