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Brain power: It pays off to learn languages, math

The Minneapolis Central High School I graduated from originated in 1913 — 100 years ago. Recently, I received an announcement of a centennial celebration to take place Aug. 10, 2013.

If I had been aware of this earlier, I might have attended. It is too late now, but not too late to take notice of an impressive list of talented people who graduated from that school, like broadcaster Eric Sevareid, actress Ann Sothern, Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, columnist Cedric Adams, actor Eddie Albert and broadcaster Halsey Hall.

It is interesting to speculate how some of these people might have attained success and brainpower by engaging in activities beyond the requirements of their school.

An article in Time magazine (“The Power of the Bilingual Brain,” July 18) tells us how learning a foreign language at an early age can enhance brainpower. Research is showing that the brains of people who know two or more languages are different from the brains of those who know just one — and those differences are all for the better.

The article described how, all over Utah, elementary school students are studying and reading and fluently speaking in languages not their own: French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and, soon, Portuguese. They are part of one of the most ambitious total-immersion language education programs ever attempted in the United States.

Another extra activity that can enhance brainpower is music education. Combining these two activities could have resulted in unusual qualities in two of my Central High School acquaintances who are still my friends today.

They didn’t become famous like the first list I mentioned, but they are truly remarkable people.

At a young age, one of them played the violin and also learned Norwegian at home from her parents, then studied the Norwegian language in high school. She made practical use of it when she made numerous trips to Norway to visit relatives.

Another early violinist learned some German at home from his parents, then studied German in high school and college. Again, he made practical use of speaking German while visiting in Germany. Both of these multitalented people became exceptionally successful in their everyday lives.

For the researchers, it is too early to measure exactly what the lifelong benefits of early language training will be. But all of science suggests that they will be considerable. The advantages of multilingualism in the senior population are especially important.

Older people have to activate their brains more in general than younger people do, but bilingual seniors have to do it less. And bilinguals get an extra 4.1 years of clarity before symptoms of any form of dementia set in.

Helen Oredson Mahle is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center’s Jottings group.




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