Professor Antonella Sorace, founder of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, is investigating the potential benefits of studying minority languages such as Sardinian and Scottish Gaelic.
Previous research has already shown that being multilingual can improve thinking and learning ability, and may reduce mental decline with age.
The positive effects of learning more than your mother tongue is one reason why “minority” languages should be saved from extinction, Prof Sorace has claimed.
“Many of these languages are not valued and so they are not supported,” she said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington DC.
“People think they are useless, so people don’t speak them to their children, for example. So many of these languages will die, sooner rather than later, because if a language is not learnt by children, that language is dead.
“If we can find a way of persuading people that these languages are actually a resource, rather than a problem, or folklore or something that belongs to the past, then we can help these languages to survive a little bit longer and children can have the benefits of bilingualism.”
Prof Sorace, who speaks Italian, English and French and has a working understanding of Spanish and Sardinian, conducted a study of retired people undergoing a one-week intensive course in Gaelic on the Isle of Skye.
She found that compared with other older individuals not doing languages courses, they showed improvements in tests of attention and thinking.
“We think it’s about effort and novelty of the task,” said the professor. “It’s not proficiency as such, because after a year, these people are not fluent in Gaelic, but the task was novel and they applied effort and their brain responded well.”
If policymakers could be encouraged to retain languages such as Gaelic, Cornish or Welsh it could have a beneficial impact on health, she said.
Prof Sorace added: “That applies to other kinds of bilingualism as well, for example bilingualism due to immigration. So all these migrants who come and very often think that their language is a problem so they try to stop speaking their language. We are trying to persuade them to keep their language. Of course, a child who moves to Britain has to learn enough English to function well in school, but not from the parents.”