authors | January 09, 2013

Jared Diamond: Traditional Societies Are Multilingual & We Should Be Too

There is a common misconception that the so-called "primitive" societies in the world have little to teach us. But as Jared Diamond explains in a recent interview with NPR, we still have much to learn from the people living in these hunter-gatherer tribes. This is also a major theme in his new book, The World Until Yesterday.

For starters, these traditional cultures often speak far more languages than we do in more "modern" societies. For example, Diamond focused on a group of New Guineans as research subjects for his book. As he explains, "several [of them] spoke from eight to 12 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15." Contrastingly, few of us are even bilingual here in North America, let alone multilingual. According to linguist Dennis Baron, about 18 per cent of Americans are bilingual—and that number is on the decline. The fact is that these cultures are far more linguistically advanced than us; anyone who speaks less than five languages tends to be an anomaly.

Diamond believes that knowing how to speak multiple languages not only advances your worldview, but also has many practical implications for the health of your brain."Bilingual patients," Diamond tells NPR, "suffer less cognitive impairment than do monolingual patients with the same degree of brain atrophy: bilingualism offers partial protection against the consequence of brain atrophy."  Learning new languages, he's found, is one of the best exercises you can do for your brain. As he told us in an exclusive interview here at Lavin (embedded above), the average bilingual person gets 5 times the protection against the effects of brain diseases like Alheizmer's—if they even develop it at all. According to the Pulitzer-Prize winning author and evolutionary biologist, we have much to learn from these tribal societies after all.

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leadership | January 08, 2013