The Big Idea
Learning a new language could sound like another one of those time-consuming activities that just takes up too much time and energy especially when you could be doing something else. The reality is you could be really missing out if you don’t. Learning a new language provides huge benefits for your brain and your productiveness. So quite aside from growing your ability to communicate with others there are still benefits even if you don’t have any immediate plans to holiday abroad. And it is much easier than you might think!
Research suggests that learning a new language improves your overall cognitive function, in particular your problem solving skills, your verbal reasoning as well as improve you attention and short term memory. So here at The 52 Project, we’d like to impress you that at least trying to learn a new languag just for fun and to improve your brain health and function. Aside form impressing your family and friends, and opening up opportunities for working and travelling abroad, committing to learning a new language can regularly give you a sense of achievement that we already know can give you dopamine hits that are good for your overall health and sense of wellbeing. So even if you end up not becoming completely fluent, it’s worth giving it a try to boost your general brain power and wellbeing.
The boom in apps and online resources makes this a skill, and habit, that is probably more accessible and broader than ever – making it even more convenient to practise in your spare time. Director of languages at the Share Trust in West Yorkshire, Juliet Park, suggests 6 ways to make learning a new language easier:
- Little and often – learning in short bursts everyday can help you build knowledge and practise the basics.
- Watching films or TV in foreign languages is an excellent way to immerse yourself at home or even on the go, including at the gym.
- Sticky notes at home – put short phrases around your house to commit them to memory.
- Personalised flash cards (including virtual ones) – learn vocabulary from anywhere.
- Follow recipes in your chosen foreign language.
- Language diary – practise talking about your daily routine in your new language.
Today so many of us are spoilt for resources to learn new skills, including speaking to native speakers from the comfort our own homes – in other words languages are just so accessible! So why not try learning a new language?
Got it…What’s the Science
Since the late C19th when Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke put together that certain parts of our brain (usually in the mid left hand side) appear necessary for our ability to create language and being able to understand it, we have known that language is a skill that the brain takes seriously. We have already spoken at length of how the brain learns and adapts to challenge through a process called neuroplasticity. Rahul Jandial writes in his book ‘Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon’ about how bilingual (and polylingual) patients can have specific ‘postcode’ regions – the so called Broca and Wernicke areas – that are language specific where the specific brain ‘address’ of each languages can ‘move’. He reports that certain language abilities seem to get repurposed following surgery (damage) in patients. Neuroscientists thought for some time that these Broca and Wernicke areas are specific and defined. Today these areas are seen as being a bit more enigmatic with only about 90% of the population having a left-hemisphere dominance for language and there there now seems more of language is “in this general region-ish” (i.e. general postcode). This probably reflects both how plastic and integrated language is to brain function and purpose. It also re-emphasises how dynamic our brain architecture is.
What we do know is that if these regions are ‘set aside’ for language then one of the best ways of exercising them to make them fitter and stronger is to give them challenge. The obvious way in which to do this is to use language as much and as broadly as possible. This by the way could be reading different styles of writing – think Shakespeare here – helps us make broader connections with meaning (Wernicke’s area) as well as the ability to produce language (Broca’s area) and connect with other aspects of our cognition, reasoning, memory and emotion. Learning a new language can obviously stretch and so add to these processes i.e. our brain’s ability to think.
Whilst at university I got talking at a party to a postgraduate linguist – as you do. He had failed all his GCSEs in languages and hated the lessons in school. He did other subjects at A-levels and after school went on to work across Europe doing different jobs from being a builder in France, chef in Spain to a bank cleric in Italy. This gave him a real love of languages and what they could open up for him in life. On returning to the UK with his dutch girlfriend he spoke of using language, at least in his head, to argue in Italian, to speak about and create food in Spanish and to be ‘slummy’ in French. In their shared house they used a different language for each day of the week… Now we are not saying you need to go that far! But it shows how much learning other languages can do for the way you think. This includes appreciating different cultural nuances that give you different perspectives, and ways of expressing them, on the same problem (think #Tip23 ‘Time to Reframe’ here). It can also help you to feel and experience the world, relationships and work differently.
Also we know how speaking, or at least trying to speak a native language when abroad can earn appreciation and latitude from those who’s country we are visiting. We suspect that this works on a mutual respect but also you are ‘like us’ connection level. This undoubtedly helps in making relationships which can of course also bring opportunities and ‘rewards’ in itself.
Another real key here still seems to be in the challenge aspect. By challenging ourselves to try something that is hard, and in which we will undoubtedly fail, is part of a general mindset that Carol Dweck coined a ‘growth mindset’. When we exercise a growth mindset in one part of our life, it can become a habit in how we approach others in our life. So regularly learning and practicing using a language can be a like an exercise work out at the gym to keep our growth mindset attitude topped up.
Lastly (almost), there is research supporting that learning a languages actually means that your brain gets better at focusing attention. The more proficient you become at a new language the more your brain has to work to suppress one language while it uses the other – the one you deem most useful in that moment. As language is so contextual and even meaning specific (some words and phrases just don’t translate too) this can be very powerful and energy intensive process to begin with. The effort of doing this though means that your brain becomes better at filtering or attending to what it is doing in other things too. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is primarily responsible for this attention switching and focusing, so learning and using other languages exercises the PFC making it more proficient in its tasks. Attention is the start of memory. Better attention usually means better memories and ability to make them. So languages simultaneously also exercises your brain’s ability to pay attention and learn. Learning another language seems to postpone the onset of dementia symptoms by 4 to 5 years – this could well be related to the extra exercise and increased functional capacity learning, and regularly using, another language gives our brains.
Not bad! Maybe those school language teachers really did know what was best for us after all.
Watch our #Tip32 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With special contributions from Emma Swanston.
6 ways to bring language learning to life (BBC article)
70 points for benefits of language learning (Universe of Memory article)
Even more reasons why learning a new language is beneficial (from ACTFL.org)
Think Tank: Bilingualism by Eleanor Carson
This has got to be another no-brainer. We mean what are the downsides? Other than maybe being seen to be mumbling to yourself…
Perhaps it’s worth thinking that although language can be considered as logical, their use can be creative. Before Vincent van Gogh became an artist he was a language teacher….
As the world has increasingly opened up with international travel and now virtual meetings, learning new languages has possibly never been as accessible, useful or rewarding. Hence why it is one of our top #Tips.
Do let us know your thoughts, stories and tips on learning languages so we can learn from each other here.
We’ll add these soon…
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