How learning a new language can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease & dementia (podcast episode)

June 2, 2023


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In today’s episode of the Brains Byte Back podcast, we speak with Dan Berges, Managing Director & Founder of Berges Institute, an online Spanish language school for adults headquartered in New York City.

In this conversation, Berges shares how, before the pandemic, the institute mostly comprised of in-person teaching, and had begun to dabble in online teaching in 2019, with a total of 1200 students and a large school in Chicago. 

However, since the pandemic, the institute has transitioned to work 100% online, with students in the US, the UK, Canada, and beyond. 

The school uses the Graf method, which is their self-developed style of teaching Spanish. It is a highly deductive method, meaning that they first teach the rules and then practice them, instead of an inductive method where students are expected to infer the rules from the examples.

Berges also shares the origin story of the company, stating that it first began in 2013 with a small studio on the upper side of New York City. They developed the Graf method themselves and it quickly became very popular. 

Additionally, Berges discusses the benefits of learning a new language, claiming that most research shows that it improves cognitive ability, memory, and concentration. 

He advocates that brain scans show an increase in the density of gray matter and white matter when learning another language. Alongside this, research has shown that learning a new language also can significantly delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

And finally, Berges shares how the institute is recruiting the use of AI in order to implement new Spanish language chatbot features for their students in order to help them learn.

You can listen to the episode below, or on SpotifyAnchorApple PodcastsBreakerGoogle PodcastsStitcherOvercastListen NotesPodBean, and Radio Public.

Alternatively, you can find a transcript below:

Dan Berges:  So I am one of the founders and the Managing Director of Berges Institute, Berges Institute is a Spanish language school for adults. And we are headquartered in New York and we do online live classes all over the world. Before the pandemic rule mostly an in-person school. Although we started teaching online back in 2019. But right now, we’re 100% online and we have a lot of students in the US and we also have some students outside of the US, like in the UK, and Canada. Um, our school uses the Graf method which is our self-developed method for teaching Spanish. It is a highly deductive method.

Dan Berges:  Deductive means that we first teach the rules and then we’ll practice them are supposed to an inductive method in which first examples are seen and then the student is expected to infer the rules from the examples.

Samuel Brake Guia: I think you covered a lot there and I’m really excited to have you on here because I think languages are really interesting for me, I spent my teenage years in university learning Japanese, and I could speak it, and write it quite well, although it’s been about 10 years since I’ve dabbled in that. So everything feels like, it’s gone, that is until I hear something. And then maybe I recognize the one word and I speak Spanish as well. And  I’m gonna be going to Brazil soon, so I’m trying to learn Portuguese as well. So this is really come a fantastic time. So I’m very excited to speak with you Dan and I want to know, you touched on it slightly but when and how did Berges Institute first start?

Dan Berges:  Yeah, so Berges Institue, we started in 2013, my business partner, Vanessa, and I opened a small studio in the upper side with developed the method back. Then I started to become very popular. So eventually we opened an Excel School in midtown with only two classrooms and then it is slowly it grew organically through the years, eventually before the pandemic in 2019, we have 1200 students. We had our school in New York, with like four spaces, and a big school in Chicago. And after the pandemic, we moved all our students online. And that is where we are right now.

Samuel Brake Guia: Well, it sounds like you’ve grown a lot and you’ve made some real progress and I kind of want to talk about learning languages now in a general sense. So I want to know, can learning a new language enhances memory and cognitive abilities, and if so, can you please explain how?

Dan Berges:  Most research shows that it improves cognitive ability in general also memory and also concentration, there are different theories that brain scans show an increase in the density of gray matter and also an increase of white matter. Brain scanners have limitations, right? They can only show blood flow, which will associate with neuron activity.  I mean we can talk about the research on Alzheimer’s disease and demons in general and how it can delay the onset. Basically, the theories are about how learning a new language creates alternative neural paths that not only work for the second language. But that also used in general cognitive function.

Dan Berges:  So it’s basically a cover redundancy circuit like to put it to give you an analogy. Like, for example, planes have secondary electrical circuits in case that the first one, something happens to them during a flight. So it is kind of like that. And basically, those alternative paths enhance cognitive function in general.

Samuel Brake Guia: That’s amazing. It’s quite incredible. How learning a language changes, your brain. I myself, sometimes, after speaking Spanish for a bit, I’ll then say things in English that don’t really translate. So obviously in Spanish, they say En este momento. and sometimes I’ll say, like, in this moment and then I’m like, wait, I don’t say that. So even in the short term, it really has an incredible impact on the brain. But I’d like to know like can you also share the different ways, learning a new language can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms and boost brain health?

Dan Berges: So yeah, and delay is the key here because I studied show that it doesn’t really prevent Alzheimer’s, but it can delay the symptoms by quite a lot. So basically, there’s been a lot of research on this and Some results try to show whether it actually prevents alternators and the results were always negative. But the research that focus on the onset and like the development of the symptoms, it is pretty consistent. In the fact that even controlling for all sorts of variables, like educational background, etc, Um the average age of onset, for Alzheimer’s for people who are going to develop Alzheimer’s is over four years for bilingual people for people who speak a second language, and this might happen for up to five years, which is a quite a big deal. It’s a pretty dramatic effect.

Samuel Brake Guia: That is pretty dramatic that’s quite impressive and it’s funny because I actually remember hearing that, I think it was like, I don’t know, 50 years ago, a hundred years ago, something like that. They actually thought that being bilingual was a bad thing in the sense that you couldn’t hold the capacity to speak really more than one language. So I think children that were raised in, maybe a household where they spoke one language like in the schools, They were heavily discouraged from continuing with that language. So I think there was definitely a sense of completely incorrect, theories and ideas and it’s so fantastic to see that having the skill and ability can benefit you so much more than being able to communicate with a wider group of people. And obviously we’ve spoken so much about the benefits here of learning a second language or another language. And for anyone who has decided, you know what? I’m I want to take this up. What advice do you have for them? And yeah how can they get started with this?

Dan Berges: Oh yeah. So I mean my advice is that learning a second? Language is a long-term process. So basically my most important piece of advice would be to enjoy the process and to kind of like get obsessed with it for for a few years to try to have as much exposure to the language as possible. Um, on top of that, I would recommend following a program. And in particular, I favor a deductive program. Our program is deductive and many other programs are deductive, inductive problems can work as well. But research shows that for adults, the deductive program can be faster and also reduce frustration.

Dan Berges:  So my recommendation would be just to have a long-term plan in which you combine following a serious program, like taking classes and following our curriculum, and on top of that having as much exposure to the language as possible in ways that you enjoy. So that could be like watching a lot of TV in your target language, listening to podcasts and radio eventually reading as much as possible that helps a lot. And then all those sorts of things, trying to basically review all different components of the language in many different ways. Basically recent shows that recall and spacing a really good for memory services. So that means basically thinking about the language and parts of the language often. And trying to give some space between studying sessions and basically doing that for a few years, will lead to having like a pretty good level of fluency the in the target language.

Samuel Brake Guia: Yeah, I think there’s a some great pieces of wisdom there and I have to say to add to that, I think music’s fantastic. I know you did mention about like podcasts and watching TV music can be great. Although, I find that music can be difficult, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s fantastic for learning things. And like kind of understanding them in a very kind of like informal context but also, it depends on the kind of music because a lot of the times music doesn’t always make sense. I mean, if you take some songs, the lyrics are just like gibberish. So sometimes in the past when I’ve tried to learn a language and I’ve just taken a song and I’ve asked a native speaker. What does this mean? They’re like, I don’t know, this doesn’t make sense and I’m like, How does it not make sense? And then they point to rappers in English and I’m like, You know what, I understand like those rappers don’t make any sense. So it’s, yeah, you’re just gonna be careful.

Dan Berges: Yeah, absolutely.

Samuel Brake Guia:  Fantastic. Well, you folks sound like you’re doing some great things and I want to know like what’s on the horizon. Few folks. What’s next up Berges Institute?

Dan Berges:  Yeah, so we are expanding to other markets like we’ve recently expanded into the UK market and we also expanding now into the Indian market. On top of that, we are doing some research on AI and Natural Language Processing. We launched a deep Spanish back in November which is a chatbot service with three different tablets with three different personalities that help our students practice their Spanish And we’re still doing more research. I guess it’s pretty early on. But it is a hot topic right now, especially after the release of chat GPT.

Dan Berges:  So far deeper Spanish has been, our only product. It’s still in beta but it’s been very popular so far. On top of that. We are doing some other research with machine learning and processing like pronunciation. And we have a few other projects in there that we are experimenting with.

Samuel Brake Guia: Fantastic. Well, it sounds like you got a lot going on, and if people do want to either, learn Spanish with you, or just keep up with what you’re doing, how can they do that?

Dan Berges:  Yeah, so they can visit our website and they can also find us on Twitter @BergesInstitute, And they can also go to our contact page and send us an email or email me directly at [email protected].

Samuel Brake Guia: Super. Well, we’ll have links to those pages in the show notes of this episode. But thank you so much for joining me today, and best of luck, helping as many people as possible learn another language.

Dan Berges: Thank you, Sam. Thanks for having me.

Disclosure: This episode includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company


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