By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist
“Why learn a new language nowadays? They speak English everywhere.” “What, hire a translator? Why don’t you just use Google translate?” “I was surprised at the low level of English in this country.”
These are unfortunately real attitudes towards language-learning, paraphrased slightly, but almost direct quotes.
Personally, I die a little inside when I hear these things. However, I can understand the lack of motivation to learn or appreciate other languages as an English-speaker if you can’t find any practical applications or benefits.
Recent research shows that learning a new language can give your whole life a boost: mentally, socially, and in terms of health.
Even if you don’t care about traveling, connecting with people, or having a professional advantage, learning to chat in a 2nd language or listening to your favorite foreign music, positively reconfigures your brain.
And you don’t even have to be fluent to reap the benefits. Here are the Top 7 ways learning a new language transforms your brain:
1. Improves Your "Executive Function"
No, we’re not talking about being a boss. Although you will be like a boss, as the kids say.
The executive function is the command center in the brain that allows you to plan, solve problems, ignore distractions, and switch your attention from one thing to another.
Bilinguals are better at it, and so are people who regularly speak their non-native language.
In a 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok from York University and Michelle Martin from Harcourt Assessment, they discovered this skill in bilingual preschoolers.
All were assigned the task of sorting red squares and blue circles into digital bins.
One bin was marked with a blue square and the other with a red circle.
In the first task, they asked the preschoolers to sort by color. This was easy for both monolinguals and bilinguals.
Next, they asked them to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing images in a bin with a conflicting color.
They discovered that bilinguals were much better at this task. Why? Probably because when you speak two languages on even a semi-regular basis, you have to block out interference: when a word comes to you in the wrong language. The preschoolers used this skill to block out their interference, the colors, and just focus on one thing.
2. Boosts Your Social Skills
Yes, learning a second language will make it easier to impress people and chat them up at parties. But that’s not what we’re referring to.
In this case, "social skills" has to do with an advanced ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (also helpful at parties and everywhere).
In 2015, Boaz Kyeser, Zoe Liberman, and Samantha Fan from the University of Chicago studied the abilities of bilingual vs. monolingual children aged 4-6 to take on someone else’s perspective.
They gave them three cars, and put adults in a position where they could only see two of them. Children were aware of the adults’ perspective. When they asked “Can you move the small car for me?”, the kids had to figure out that they must be referring to the medium.
The bilinguals were better at this task than monolinguals. Putting yourself in someone else's perspective requires an analysis of what the speaker knows and what they don’t know.
This is a skill that adults must use, in our daily interactions, regardless of what language we are speaking.
3. Increases the Size of Your Brain
Beyond giving you some helpful life abilities, learning a new language actually bulks up the size of your brain itself.
A 2012 study by John Martensson from Lund University examined the changes in language-learners’ brains.
They analyzed two groups: One was made up of military recruits intensively learning Arabic, Russian, and Dari.
The control group was comprised of medical and cognitive science students, who were also studying difficult subjects that did not include language.
The first group went from knowing nothing to being able to speak in 13 months.
After those 13 months, the researchers took MRI scans of the participants.
What they found was astonishing. The hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex actually had grown in size for the language learners.
In the control group, these structures remained unchanged.
4. Speeds Up Your Neurons
Learning another language is like giving your brain a jolt of coffee. Or really, just some exercise.
The brain is a lot like the rest of the body. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
This is especially true for language learning. Ping Lee and researchers at Penn State University wanted to find out how neural pathways were affected when information in a foreign language was acquired.
They took 39 volunteers of varying ages, and scanned their brains for a 6-week period. Half were native English speakers learning Mandarin Chinese vocabulary. Half were a control group.
They underwent two MRI scans, one before the experiment and one after six weeks. After the testing period, participants who learned Chinese had a better-integrated brain; it became more flexible and allowed for faster and more efficient learning.
Those who excelled in the language lessons had even more integrated networks than those who struggled. This led them to the conclusion that people who were successful probably regularly sought out new things to learn and exercised their brains.
Being smart makes you learn more, and learning more makes you smart. It’s a positive cycle.
5. Expands Your Consciousness
Learning a new language awakens your brain to concepts you didn’t even know existed.
Learning a new language enables you to perceive things you didn’t even know were there before. The idea of linguistic relativity states just that: the languages we speak change the way we see the world.
Colors are a prime example. The Japanese have more words to describe the color blue, and therefore, they are able to see more shades of blue than English speakers.
If you learn Japanese as an English speaker, you will start seeing them, too.
Julie Goldstein and researchers at the University of London looked at the perceptions of the Himbia tribe of Namibia, South America. They have only five words to describe all colors in the world. When asked to look at the color blue, they had a difficult time differentiating it from green.
When you acquire a new language, the same thing happens --- it opens a doorway to a world you’ve never seen before.
6. Slows Down the Aging of Your Brain
Dr. Thomas Black and researchers from the University of Edinburgh participated in a long-term study that they checked back on in 2010.
In 1947, 853 people were given intelligence tests at age 11, and were then retested again in their 70s. Of the participants, 195 of them had learned a language before the age of 18, only 19 before the age of 11, and 65 of them after age 18.
People speaking two languages or more performed better than predicted from their baseline cognitive abilities, and they did especially well on general intelligence and reading.
This has great implications for people who want to start language study later in life. Learning a new language will protect and strengthen your mind into your twilight years, helping possibly to protect you against dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
In fact, a 2013 study from Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India discovered that people who speak two languages developed Alzheimer's disease on average 4 and 1/2 years later than those who only speak one language.
7. Makes You More Creative
“Creativity” is sort of an abstract thing to define. But if we had to put it into concrete scientific terms, it would boil down to divergent thinking --- the ability to find many solutions to a given problem.
Creativity also has to do with flexibility, fluency, originality, and elaboration. Scientists developed a test, called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, to monitor those factors.
In a 2012 study by Behzad Ghonsooly and Sara Showqi from the University of Mashhad, they tested how advanced language learners aged 16 to 18 performed on said test versus monolingual students.
Not surprisingly, people who had learned a new language outperformed them on each of the four TCCT aspects. (Read more about how daydreaming makes you more creative.)