One of the most fundamental aspects of human beings is our ability to communicate in complex languages. While many people around the world are perfectly content learning a single language in all of its nuanced beauty, there are many other people who learn two, three or more languages over the course of their lifetime. Learning additional languages is often cited as being a “good thing”, but why is that exactly?
As it turns out, learning a second language (or a third, or a fourth) is a very good idea for many different reasons – mentally, socially, academically, financially and emotionally!
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Most children are typically exposed to a single language from their parents, and that is normally the “native” tongue of their country. They learn to see the world by defining it with language, even from the first few months, when infants can hear language being spoken, even if they can’t understand it. Learning the complexities of a language can take a lifetime, but when we are young, our brains are “sponges” and soak up information and language knowledge much easier than when we get older.
However, in many parts of the world, children are exposed to multiple languages, and are often actively taught a second language when they are young and can take advantage of their fresh, eager brain. Oddly enough, 100 years ago, many “experts” believed that learning two languages at once could actually be detrimental to a child’s development, arguing that mixing languages could cause confusion and negatively impact cognitive growth. This has since been proven wrong, but if it isn’t bad for you, then how is it good?
When you are able to flow back and forth between two languages, it shows a certain level of cognitive flexibility. You are better able to control your reactions and focus in unexpected or new situations, making you better able to handle the flow of information, thus affecting logic and decision-making. (Source) Furthermore, studies have shown that learning a language later in life can stimulate the development of new neural pathways, essentially keeping your brain “fresh”.
By keeping different parts of the brain active as we age, it helps keep cognition sharp and the neuronal connections moving quickly. In other words, learning a second language can keep us “thinking” young. Research has shown that, on average, bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by five years.
When you are able to speak another language, it inherently increases the amount of people with whom you can speak in the world. Traveling to a foreign country where that second language is spoken doesn’t seem so daunting once you are able to handle yourself in conversation. Traveling and experiencing new cultures is a wonderful way to expand your worldview, and not having to worry about the language barrier makes this a much more realistic option for a vacation – or even a more permanent relocation.
Foreign language study, by its very nature, forces you to listen more carefully and improves your memory. This can help to improve your conversational skills in both languages, and make you a more sensitive, empathetic person because you have mastered the art of focus.
Studies have shown that children who are bilingual are better at “switching” their brains from one task to the next, which can be a major advantage in school. Many students, as they enter higher grades, often struggle with the multitude of subjects throughout the day, which can cause them to earn lower marks or tune out the teacher. Analytical and creative skills are also improved in those students who have learned a second language, and regularly practice going “back and forth” between the two.
In terms of behavior, having a second language to “think” in provides a certain amount of distance and objectivity regarding certain situations. Behavioral issues are less present in those students who have learned a second language, perhaps because their actions are slightly less dictated by emotion, and are more guided by rational decision-making. Either way, it makes for a better student and a more successful teaching environment.
A difference in language is usually the fundamental issue that stops communication between people from different cultures. The inability to communicate creates an “otherness”, which can often lead to fear and mistrust. As a bilingual or multilingual individual, you become a “citizen of the world” and can tear down barriers that separate people, basically the opposite of what this guy wants.
Furthermore, in our globalized modern world, being able to move within and communicate with other cultures and people is essential. Think of all the food, wine, art, theatre, literature and intellectual discourse would never have been possible without people learning multiple languages. Bilingual people act as important bridges between global cultures.
You are a far more attractive candidate for a job if you can speak more than one language. These days, business is done on a global scale in many industries, which means that your second or third language just might land you a job over someone without that sort of linguistic diversity. This isn’t only applicable to the corporate business world. Being bilingual or multilingual enhances your chances of advancement in almost every field, from medicine and the military to education, politics and public service.
Obviously, there are many advantages to learning another language, aside from being able to talk to the bartender on your next exotic vacation. While the process of learning a language does get more difficult as you get older, and your neural pathways are more firmly established, it is far from impossible. There are also countless resources, both online and off, that can help you get started on your next linguistic goal!
- The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual / National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease / Neurology (journal)
- Scientific American
- The Telegraph
- Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition, by Ellen Bialystok, London: Cambridge University Press, 2001