Is America’s ‘English Only’ Push a Recipe for Alzheimer’s?

Contrary to populist politics, bilingualism may be key to keeping your mind.

Diagram of the brain
Being raised bilingual helps stimulate 'executive control' in the brain. (Photo: Chris Helgren/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Last month, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made big news when he told Puerto Rico’s El Vocero newspaper that the territory would have to make English its official language if it wanted a chance to become the 51st state.

“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” Santorum said. “And that is that English has to be the principal language.”

...children raised in bilingual homes have a distinct advantage in what is known as “executive control” of the brain—which governs complex, goal-directed activities.

English-only,” as the movement is called, would require all government communiqués and documents to be printed in English—forcing immigrants to learn the language if they are to survive in America. Considering there is no crisis of English competency here in the U.S. (96 percent of Americans already speak English) one could argue this movement is a coded xenophobic backlash to the influx of illegal immigration from the Spanish-speaking world. But there are rational arguments to be made on behalf of making English the national language: Political unity, for instance.

Jared Diamond, however, the Pulitzer-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and MacArthur “Genius” professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, says that English-only sentiments are ultimately destructive. Two weeks after Santorum’s Puerto Rican trip, Diamond spoke at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History to argue that not only is the philosophical premise of English-only flawed (Switzerland, for instance, has four languages and suffers no crisis of national unity) but the idea could also ultimately spark a public health crisis.

According to Diamond’s research, children raised in bilingual homes have a distinct advantage in what is known as “executive control” of the brain—which governs complex, goal-directed activities. Processing multiple languages strengthens executive control in a way no other brain exercise seems capable of. And that’s crucial, because executive impairment is one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s

“Being bilingual is the best [preventative] cure for Alzheimer’s we know of,” says Diamond. “Every language spoken in addition to English offers five years’ protection from the disease.”

As of now, the science remains unclear whether learning additional languages later in life provides the same protection as being raised in a bilingual home.

“I’ve spoken 12 languages at one time or another in my life,” says Diamond. “But I didn’t learn any until after the age of 11. So I either have 60 years of protection, or none at all.”

So as best as current science can tell, a multilingual, multicultural America is the best public health bulwark we have against a deadly and incurable disease. In that context, English-only policies serve no function other than to discourage and stigmatize bilingualism—at a time when our public health system can least afford it.

As for what to do about it, simply rejecting English-only policies isn’t good enough, says Diamond. For its own health, America needs to actively start embracing language as something inherently valuable. The perfect place to start, Diamond argues, is by preserving America’s rich native linguistic traditions. California alone is home to 80 Native-American languages—all of which are in danger of disappearing as tribes have begun to assimilate. Federal funding to preserve these languages has dwindled to all but a trickle. Diamond suggests calling your congressional representative immediately and requesting additional monies to preserve Native-American languages.

“Americans spent $30 million to save one bird, the California condor,” he says. “I think we can spend the same amount to preserve the linguistic heritage of California.”

Not only will we be fighting to preserve the culture of America’s first residents, we’ll be helping to protect future generations from a horrible, degenerative disease. 

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