When I think about my Grandma Bottiglieri, who came from Italy to the United States as a teenager, I will always remember her speaking to us in what we called “broken English” (which might be frowned upon today, given the fact that language learning should be perceived as an asset rather than a deficiency). Usually, my sister and I could understand what she was saying when she spoke to us, but often, we would have to ‘translate’ for our friends when they came to visit due to her heavy Italian accent, but she certainly had no problem getting her point across. When she passed away at the age of 88, she was still very much mentally aware of her surroundings and of the people around her, even though she might have had to run down the list of names of her five daughters to get to the right one. Although she wasn’t fluent in English and didn’t have anyone with which to speak Italian (we all spoke to her in English), she still had the ability to think in both Italian and English, which is how we learned some of the most common Italian expressions, such as “la vecchiaia è brutta” (“old age is ugly”), which she said quite often. Needless to say, I took classes at school to learn Italian because it wasn’t spoken at home.
As I learn more about bilingualism, I have found that there have been many studies in the past decade or so suggesting that being bilingual actually delays the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. One study in particular suggested that the participants who were bilingual “exhibited a delay of 4.1 years in the onset of symptoms of dementia in comparison to monolinguals” (Bialystok et al., 2007). There are a number of factors that can affect dementia, but what is interesting to note is that a connection exists between dementia, which is a biological disease, and bilingualism, which is psychological, so there may be some validity to psychosomatic illnesses.
Another more recent study found that the delay in development of dementia was 4.5 years in bilinguals and also ruled out the lack of education as a disadvantage to bilingualism (Alladi et al., 2013). Grandma Bottiglieri could not read or write, so she might have been classified as what is considered a SIFE (Student with Interrupted/Inconsistent Formal Education) today. However, these findings support the fact that, although she received minimal formal education, she still had the same neurological functions as a bilingual speaker who received a complete, formal education.
Nonetheless, whether bilingualism had an effect on the mental capacity of my grandmother in her later years is unclear: we will never know. It’s interesting, though, maybe even amusing, to analyze her language abilities. Given my love of languages and linguistics, I almost think that was the catalyst that started it all. Grandma Bottiglieri was tickled when I would speak to her in Italian, and my sister and I still duplicate some of the things she used to say, accent and all, and use them on a daily basis with love and admiration to keep her memory alive, although we may have to ‘translate’ for people on occasion.
In closing, I consider it a tremendous opportunity to be a part of all of the initiatives currently being put into motion with regard to bilingualism and English language learners in education; thinking about how my grandmother came to this country and learned English puts everything into perspective in terms of the increased awareness.