How does multilingualism help?

In this monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the relationship between monolingualism and dementia and examining reasons why Papua New Guineans are better protected against dementia caused by Alzheimers than people in countries such as Australia and Japan.

DEMENTIA is a very sad result of Alzheimers, a disease in older people that affects the neurons in the brains that conduct electrical signals that generate thought. This makes parts of the brain shrink, so that thoughts become confused and memory is lost. As dementia develops and more brain tissue is lost, we see our elders disappear before us, becoming childlike, and eventually ending up with a soul that can no longer communicate or interact with the world.
Some years ago I had the unfortunate experience of an older Papua New Guinean friend of mine developing dementia. As I watched his condition deteriorate, I was struck by the thought that, while I knew a number of older persons with dementia among my relatives in the United States and Europe, I seemed to know far fewer in PNG. Why was this?
Of course, one reason is the poor health infrastructure in PNG – many older people here simply die of malaria and other diseases before they have a chance to develop Alzheimers. But researchers are finding that another reason may be the fact that few Papua New Guineans speak only one language.
Researchers in India, Italy, and Canada have found that while Alzheimers is a physical disease that is caused by factors unrelated to language, the dementia caused by Alzheimers develops an average of four or five years earlier in people who grew up with only one language and who never used a second language for everyday communication.
In these studies, scientists compared groups of people living in the same communities who had similar economic status, education, and levels of health, so that the only difference was whether the people spoke one, two, or several languages.

Left – a healthy brain; right – a brain damaged by Alzheimers.

Using brain scans, they found that people who speak more than one language have more connections between different parts of the brain. This means that when Alzheimers starts to attack neuron connections, the brains of bilingual and multilingual people have more connections to fall back on to make up for the damage they are suffering. They also found weaker abilities to metabolise glucose sugars in the brains of monolinguals, so that these brains receive less nutrition over a lifetime.
Interestingly, some studies indicate that just as people speaking two languages have an advantage over those who speak only one language, those who speak three or more languages have an even greater advantage. But it helps to have learned the second or third language as a child. There does not seem to be much of an advantage for people who learn another language only as a teenager or adult. It is also important that people continue to communicate in all these languages throughout their whole life.
In addition to slowing down mental deterioration due to dementia caused by Alzheimers, there is evidence that knowing more than one language helps in recovery after strokes.
When dementia does occur in bilingual and multilingual people, and mental ability decays, languages are often not lost all at the same time. Research in Britain has shown that Gaelic-speaking older people in Scotland who learned English at school often lose the ability to speak English as they develop Alzheimers, even though they can still speak Gaelic.
The same has been found in a study of Punjabi-speaking immigrants, who learned English after immigrating to Britain as adults. Their English ability was lost first, but the Punjabi they learned as toddlers stayed with them for much longer.
This can often be devastating to the children and grandchildren of these people, who themselves may never have learned the language their parents or grandparents grew up with and who always used English with them. Suddenly they are unable to communicate with their loved ones at a time when the confusion of dementia makes communication especially important. In Britain there are now support groups with people who speak minority languages to help families in this unfortunate situation.
Many, perhaps most, of the readers of this article will have learned at least one local language with their parents and grandparents, Tok Pisin outside the home, and English from grade 1 at community school.
Without knowing it, by teaching them their ancestral language and English together with Tok Pisin, their parents, grandparents, and teachers have given the gift of extra years of meaningful senior life. It is a gift we can pass on to our own children and grandchildren by speaking our own language with them.
Long after we are no longer with them, this gift will give our children and grandchildren four to five more years of active mental ability compared to their counterparts in countries like Japan and Australia, who are handicapped by knowing only one language.

  • Professor Volker, a linguist whose home is in New Ireland, is an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

Engineer sets record for his doctor bride

BRIDE price is a requirement in most parts of PNG to recognise a marriage as legal by parents and relatives of both the husband and wife.
This trend especially in the highlands is becoming a very expensive exercise.
Even under the current financial hardships some still feel they have to meet such obligations because it is part of life.
On Friday, Aug 21, the shrill call of women reverberated around Kundiawa town on the afternoon while people gathered to witness a bride price which was believed to be highest paid in their lifetime.
In such a small town, the noise meant something was going on – not just anything but something big, given the volume of the noise.
And indeed it was. It was a gathering of people from five of Chimbu’s six electorates. A gathering to witness a bride price payment which can be the biggest compared to others ever held in Kundiawa.
The family of Jesse Mango at Malaria from the Salt local level government (LLG) in the Karamui-Nomane electorate and relatives from Gumine, Sinasina-Yongomugl and Kundiawa electorates gathered to pay the bride price of Dr Agnes Agua.
Agua’s families are from the Gena tribe in the Kerowagi electorate.
In front of Paul Kune’s home at Malaria, the family stacked up garden crops, tied pigs to stakes and had a cow in the field as the ceremony ensued.
The total cost of the food items, livestock and other materials given amounted to K160, 000.
But on that afternoon, Jesse’s family presented K80, 000 in cash, 35 pigs, one cassowary, one goat, one cow and a large amount of garden produce.
For cash-strapped province like Chimbu, once in a blue moon would people witness such an event. And this one made it straight to the record books for bride price payment in the provine.
Bride price payment is a cultural practice that goes back hundreds of years.
It’s given to formalise a marriage, cement the relationship between the families of the bride and groom, and importantly it compensates the bride’s parents for their hard work in raising a daughter into a woman.
Today, highly educated and professional women attract a high bride price.

Dr Agnes Agua with the bilum containing the K80,000 cash which she distributed to her family on Aug 21.

Dr Vero Agua, who is studying to become a gynaecologist, falls within that category.
She attended the Lutheran School of Nursing in Madang and graduated with a diploma from there. She worked for one year and then applied to the UPNG Open Campus to do the science foundation year.
From there she studied medicine at the Medical Faculty and graduated with Bachelor in Medicine and Bachelor in Surgery.
In most cases in PNG, the responsibility of organising a bride price payment lies with the parents of the groom.
They raise the pigs, they assist other family members who have bride price obligations by contributing food and cash. They do these knowing full well that when their time comes, those who owe them will reciprocate.
What’s steeped in our rich traditions and cultures can’t be changed overnight.
But, Mango, an open pit mine planning engineer with Barrick Niugini Limited (BNL) thinks that it is about time, the boys in the family begin to take that responsibility away from their parents – not all but at least a major burden of the bride price payment.
For his bride price payment, Jesse had raised 17 pigs since 2017 and saved money to meet this obligation. He contributed half of the total cost of the bride price payment.
“I told my parents that they had done their bit by getting me to where I am at the moment,” Mango said.
“They fed me, raised me, clothed me and met my educational costs. Their responsibilities over me ended when I found employment.”
Employment for Mango began with Hidden Valley Mine after he earned a mining engineering degree from the University of Technology in 2011.
Hidden Valley employed Mango through their graduate mining engineer programme. This programme ran for two years. When his tenure under the graduate training programme ended, he was employed as a mining engineer and stayed there for another three years.
It was here during one of his field breaks that he met the love of his life at the bus stop area at Three Mile in Port Moresby. Dr Agua at that time was into her third year at the University of PNG Medical Faculty when their friendship began.
In 2017, Mango joined BNL as a mine production engineer and was recently promoted to his current post which is Open Pit Mine Planning Engineer.
“Many of our young male professionals these days tend to spend so much on booze, pokies, and cigarettes and don’t save money,” Mango said.
“When it comes to family obligations like deaths, compensations and of course bride price payments, they hardly have enough to meet those responsibilities.”
Mango said men also burden parents with debts to settle.
“People who come with contributions in cash, livestock or food items either do it because they are repaying a favour or are doing it because it’s the cultural norm.
“If it’s the latter, then you have that obligation to repay them.
“But what if you don’t work at home and worse, don’t have some savings to offset those debts?”
He said in such situations the parents would once again meet those obligations and that was totally unfair on them.
Mango thanked everyone who contributed towards his bride price payment to Dr Agua who works at the Modilon Hospital in Madang as a gynaecology registrar.