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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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The bilingualism bonus

7 February 2017

I read some research online last week which indicated that being bilingual does some good things to your brain.

The paper reports on a study involving 684 people which found that those who were bilingual took on average 4.5 years longer to show the effects of Alzheimer disease dementia when compared to those who spoke only one language.

Exactly why this effect occurs is not known but it seems to be related to the amount of our brain we regularly use and echoes other studies which show that "active" brains are more resistant to dementia.

Perhaps, a some have suggested, the brain is like a muscle and regular use promotes good blood flow which slows the aging effect and resulting conditions such as Alzheimers.

Whatever the reason, it seems that being bilingual is a good thing, a very good thing.

So what second language should we teach ourselves and our kids?

Well here in NZ there's a huge pressure to make Te Reo a "core subject" in the curriculum of our schools.

Some within Maori say that "we" (meaning everyone) have an obligation to preserve the Maori language and that obligation is implied under The Treaty.

Well I've scanned the few paragraphs that make up The Treaty and I see no reference to this but I think most of us have already determined that The Treaty means whatever contemporary Maori claim it means -- regardless of the actual text.

Personally, I don't think anyone but Maori have an obligation to preserve the Maori language.

They have a right to be proud of their history and their language and I would whole-heartedly encourage them to preserve it -- but I'm sorry, it's not *my* responsibility to do so -- any more than it is their responsibility to preserve the customs and languages of my ancestors.

When I was at school, we learned French as a second language.

At the time I thought it was boring as bat-poo and I think I got just 22 percent in my final exam. I wasn't interested at all in learning another language, I wanted to learn all about science and maths. The five periods of French I had to attend every week were purgatory and, from where I sat, a complete waste of time.

Strangely enough, I now have a far better grasp on the French language today than I did back in my high school years -- although it is still tenuous at best and any attempt to ask for a glass of water in a French restaurant is likely to involve unintended references to donkeys in toilets or something similarly obscure.

At the airfield where I spend most of my working day there is a Frenchman and we exchange pleasantries in Fran├žais on an almost daily basis. It's fun and I find that now I really do enjoy the challenges of playing with a second language. Who knows, it might just preserve my mental functions for a few more years too!

Despite my own hatred of French as a subject, I can definitely see the benefits of being bilingual. Learning another language gives you far more understanding of the way that languages are structured and how important subtleties of meaning can be. It's also a great exercise for the brain for those who are perhaps not as passionate about other cerebrally challenging subjects such as math and science.

So I say "yes" to making a second language a core subject in schools, not because it's necessarily going to be of use in business or when traveling but because it's good for your brain and can broaden your horizons in a way that other subjects don't.

Should it be Te Reo?

Well Te Reo should certainly be an option but I don't think we should be forcing it down the throats of those who don't want to learn it. Perhaps we should offer a choice to our students and let them decide which second language they learn. After all, it's not the actual language that's important as the actual learning and using involved.

What do readers think? Do non-Maori NZers have an obligation to preserve the Maori language or is that solely a Maori responsibility?

What non-Maori alternative language should become part of our core subjects at school?

What language would you like to learn?

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