The impact of language on human health
In previous articles, we have explored some of the potential implications of the languages we speak. Studies have shown that our native language influences the way we view the world.
Research has also suggested that using a foreign language in business meetings can affect our decision-making process.
We also know that language regions influence cultures and that cultures influence development of language. Linguistic anthropologists continue to investigate this two-way process. It is becoming clear that the languages we speak have the potential to affect many aspects of our neurology from our perception of colour to the way we problem-solve. Now, scientists have begun to look at the impact of the languages we speak on our health.
Could our native language really influence our health? Might we recover more quickly from serious health issues if we are bilingual?
A recent study has suggested that the languages we speak could, indeed, be a factor in our ability to recover from strokes.
Language and recovery from stroke
A study published in the April 2023 online issue of Neurology delivered interesting results.
The research, led by Dr Lewis Morgenstern of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, looked at 1096 Mexican American in Corpus Christi, Texas who had suffered a stroke. The aim was to explore the impact of the language the patients spoke on their recovery. Three aspects of recovery were studied, neurological function (speech, vision and coordination), memory and ability to perform daily activities such as bathing.
Patients who spoke only Spanish were compared to those who spoke only English or who were bilingual. The study found that patients who spoke only Spanish had worse neurological outcomes than patients who spoke either English alone or both languages.
Three months after suffering a stroke, the average neurological score of Spanish speakers was seven while English speakers averaged a score of four. Lower scores are indicative of improved recovery. The results of the study remained consistent, even after they were adjusted to take account of factors other than language that could have influenced recoveries.
Language barriers to healthcare
For instance, the Spanish speakers tended to be older and to have received less formal education. The Spanish speakers also had worse neurological scores than the other patients at the time of their strokes and were more likely to be suffering from either high blood pressure or diabetes. But they were less likely to be smokers. The researchers found that the language patients spoke was not associated with any delays in reaching hospital or difficulties with accessing emergency services. However certain factors which could influence health such as the patients’ incomes were not considered.
There was no difference between the outcome of the two groups regarding the recovery of their memories or their abilities to complete their daily activities. Dr Morgenstern’s study certainly had limitations as the number of patients who spoke only Spanish was much smaller than the number who were English speakers or bilingual. However, the research does suggest that the language spoken by someone who suffers a stroke could affect their neurological recovery. The way languages shape the human brain might impact neurological health.
Further research required
Dr Morgenstern believes that his study does show that the way languages shape our brain is much more important than has previously been acknowledged.
The results of the study mirrored those of earlier research which showed that Hispanic Americans had worse outcomes following strokes than non-Hispanic Americans. Further research is required to explore whether genetic factors play a role in stroke recovery.
Recently, a comparison of native German and Arabic speakers found greater connections between the two hemispheres of the brain in Arabic speakers. People who speak German have more developed language networks in their left hemispheres. Experts believe that the differences between the brains of German and Arabic speakers reflect the differences in the demands the two tongues place on the human brain.
Spanish and English are more similar languages to each other than Arabic and German are. If the improved recoveries from stroke of English speakers compared to Spanish speakers does relate to language-induced brain changes, there could be even greater variations of outcomes between speakers of other languages.
It would be interesting to look at speakers of many different languages to monitor their recoveries from their strokes or other health issues.
7000 Native languages
There are roughly 7,000 different languages spoken around the world. Those languages vary greatly in their structures and vocabularies. This situation presents huge potential for research into the impact of language on health. But the quality of healthcare delivery and lifestyles vary enormously too and so it would be hard for researchers to isolate language as a factor in how people recover from health issues.
Dr Morgenstern’s study raises interesting questions but cannot be deemed conclusive. Researchers around the world continue to study the impacts of the languages we speak on many aspects of life. It is now beyond doubt that our native language does influence the way we think and does play a role in shaping our brains. We also know that learning a new language can delay the onset of dementia.
Research into the impact of the languages we speak continues and now encompasses diverse disciplines. Studies tend to focus on specific questions and to look at relatively small numbers of people. As such, they may appear to be inconclusive. But when you consider the results collectively, there is a mounting body of evidence indicating that our native languages influence almost everything we do.
Should we really be surprised to discover that the languages we speak may also affect our health?