Posted by: patenttranslator | November 14, 2013

One More Unexpected But Welcome Benefit Of Being Bilingual Or Multilingual

Do you remember the telephone number that you used to have 10 or 20 years ago before you moved and got a new phone number?

Probably not because our brains are programmed to remember only what we need to remember and to discard everything else as if there were a final storage capacity for brain. Well, maybe there is. It is also likely that different information is stored in different parts of our brain so that some of it can be accessed easily, and some only on certain occasions.

I don’t remember the phone number that I used to have 12 years ago, but since I do remember the area code and the old address, when I ran a search and displayed the whole number, I recognized it instantly.

So there must be a lot of information buried deep inside our brain that sometime may surface and be accessed with the right trigger. But old, unneeded information is no longer stored in the “quick cache” of our brain which is where our current telephone number is normally stored.

I have seen recently at least half a dozen articles in newspapers about the benefits of bilingualism with respect to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, although the articles said that the onset of the disease is only delayed by about 5 years in bilingual or multilingual people.

It makes sense to me. Our brain is just like our body: if it is not exercised, challenged, even, it will eventually become weak, flabby, and after the onset of Alzheimer’s, completely useless.

More than 3 decades ago when I was in the army, I was a radio operator “of the first class”, which means that I was able to tap out with my nimble hand Morse code letters (Twitter that works without Internet if you have a receiver a transmitter, no limit on length of messages) at the speed of 120 letters per minute . I forgot everything about Morse code, except for SOS, of course, because these three letters are often used in movies and thus they stay embedded in the quick cache of our brain.

The brain is a strange animal. It remembers some things, prefers not to remember other things, and to misremember still other things, which is why different people always have different versions of what really happened.

My version of what happened in our apartment on 5th Avenue in San Francisco when the walls started shaking and things started falling on our heads during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 is very different from the way my wife remembers it.

In my version of events, I am prudent, but logical and brave during those critical 15 seconds; in her version of events, I am pretty cowardly and lame.

I am sure that my version is correct, and she is equally sure that her version is how it really happened.

But let’s get back to the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual, since this blog is supposed to be about translation (and it’s also safer for me that way).

I do believe that navigating between several languages, which is what translators are doing more or less safely on a daily basis, is a very good exercise for the brain, and that this is the reason why the brain of people who can tackle more than one language is more resistant to Alzheimer’s diseases.

This is a very good news for us, translators, for a reason that most people don’t even realize at this point. Imagine that you are an elderly translator who lives in a country where the so called safety net has so many big holes in it that it is essentially certain that you will fall through one of those huge, gaping holes at the point in your life when you will actually need a safety net.

What will non-translators and other unfortunate monolinguals do in their old age if their brain no longer works properly once Wall Street has stolen what is left of Social Security in this country? Whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, or share power while pretending to absolutely hate each other (and laugh at the dumb voters who buy their spiel), the banksters will eventually get all of it, and they will get away with it since that is how things have been working so far.

If you are a translator, instead of having your brain assaulted and eventually destroyed by a sneaky, slowly progressing disease that affects about 10% of people over 65 and about 50% of people above 85, playing the game of averages and including the multilingual factor in the equation, instead of experiencing the onset of the disease at 70 years of age, you are likely to suffer only from a mild form of senile dementia in your mid seventies, and you will probably be able to keep on translating up until your eighties.

This is very good news indeed for translators because the way things are going, most of us will pretty much have to work until we drop dead, or the earth is obliterated by an asteroid, whichever comes first, if we want to be able to pay our bills.

If we get lucky, we will die somewhere between our 75th and 80th year of age (should we live that long, of course), just before Alzheimer’s completely destroys our ability to translate and pay our bills in this manner.

By the time most of us are so old that our brain no longer works, the so called safety net (old, quaint notions that used to be called pension, social security, healthcare) will be just one big hole.

But luckily for us, we will be dead.

We translators are so lucky!


  1. You’ve left one group out of your predictions of the future: this new underclass of hamsters who are expected to revise MpT (machine pseudo-translation) output. The traumatic effects of exposure to this material will, over time, impair verbal capacities and mental function as a whole, so that the generation of mentally fit real translators may experience their years after 80 or 90 as ones in which they must care for wards full of gibbering 40-year post-editing veterans suffering from post-textual stress disorder (PTSD) and who can no longer remember their names or hold a napkin.


  2. Unlike translators, post-processors are unlikely to live long enough to be able to experience the benefits of bilingualism on their cognitive abilities in old age due to a high suicide rate among these people, etc.

    What a horrible way to die!


  3. […] Do you remember the telephone number that you used to have 10 or 20 years ago before you moved and got a new phone number? Probably not because our brains are programmed to remember only what we ne…  […]


  4. I was intrigued by the research you mentioned in your previous post and was thinking of investigating further, so thanks for this last post and related links; I had read about bilingualism quite extensively ages ago when I decided to bring up my daughters bilingual but am enormously relieved by more recent dementia-related research as my father developed Alzheimer a few years ago (and this disease affects more females than males, so it’s something that’s been preying on my mind…).
    Sadly though my memory skills vis-a-vis phone numbers and numbers in general is catastrophically bad – phone numbers, pin numbers…. I am liable to forget them or mix them up at any time….


  5. Maybe there is a solution for delaying Alzheimer: as a preventive measure, everybody who has history of the disease in his or her family should start learning a foreign language by the age of 65 which is when the problems typically start. If the disease is delayed by 5 years, then most of these people should be able to live disease-free well into their seventies or eighties.

    (I am only half joking).


  6. Recently I keep hearing stories about people in retirement homes in Canada and Australia who’ve forgotten the English they learnt as immigrants and can now only communicate in their native tongue. If bilingualism does prevent Alzheimer’s why is this happening? Or is there another cause? They can only communicate if the retirement home has or hires bilingual staff! It’s my recurring nightmare – trapped in a retirement home here on this island I live on where none of the staff speaks English … (perhaps I should give up translating and start teaching English as an ‘investment’ for my old age).


  7. Unfortunately, from what I read, bilingualism does not prevent Alzheimer, it only seems to delay it on average by about 5 years (see link to New York Times Article in my post).

    But 5 years of a normal life seem like a really good reward for all this additional trouble that bilingual people had to go through.

    My explanation for why people revert to their original language in old age is that the old language is stored in a part of brain which is not affected by the disease as more recent information seems to be lost first.

    I hope your brains keeps working just fine well into your nineties if you live that long, wherever you decide to live!


  8. I don’t think it is that simple. There is a price to be paid for being bilingual. I have spoken to several people here in Florida who were transplanted in their early childhood into a different language group – mostly from Latin America to the U.S. – and some of them have the same problem I have – we remember very little from our years before or shortly after the language change. I came to the Czech Republic from Russia when I was about 5 years old. The household situation was hardly bilingual – it was one language “before” and one language “after”, I had to learn fast to get to school, and I and no problem with that. But memories are missing. They were disconnected and erased. I am looking at old photos of my family and myself from the years before and shortly after the move – nothing, nada, zero response. Faces, places, the fun I allegedly had – nothing. When I spoke about it with my coworker from Cuba we were both amazed how much our respective spouses remember from their childhood. Of course, maybe I’ll remember everything when I am really old (if I live that long) and don’t need to remember to brush my teeth. Brain indeed is a funny animal.


  9. “I came to the Czech Republic from Russia when I was about 5 years old”

    I don’t remember anything from when I was 5 either. We lived in a small village in Southern Bohemia, and I visited it a few years ago to see whether I would remember something, but just just like you, I remembered nothing.

    So it’s probably not the result of the fact that you switched languages. Most people remember only a few isolated scenes from the time when they were 5 years old.

    I switched languages several times in my life – from Czech to German, from German to English, from English to Japanese, and then from Japanese back to English in my twenties and early thirties and I remember everything just fine.

    I agree that there is a price to be paid for being bilingual ….. but there is a price to be paid for everything.


  10. […] European Multilingual Blogging Day 2013 – The Native Speaker Principle (in German) One More Unexpected But Welcome Benefit Of Being Bilingual Or Multilingual Highs and Lows of Translation Business: Interview with Don DePalma, CSA When a client complains […]


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