Learning a foreign language is one of life’s greatest accomplishments and joys. It opens a world of possibilities for travel and career and helps us experience another culture in a more genuine and connected way.
But, what I really love about language is the cognitive, intellectual and social outcomes that come from learning a language. Learning a language is a gift that keeps giving for one’s entire life.
Learning a language creates three powerful outcomes:
Firstly, the process of learning a language literally re-wires the brain. It increases the density of the grey matter of the brain (this is one time when it is good to be dense ☺) and it increases the number of synapses being used in the brain and therefore prevents them from being lost. These cognitive changes are significant and life-long.
Secondly, these cognitive enhancements result in a number of intellectual advantages: improved memory; faster decision making; enhanced divergent thinking and increased creativity. This is why language is highly recommended as an activity to stave off Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia in older age. But regardless of age, what a bonus! I’d like to order some improved memory please, with a side order of faster decision making and enhanced divergent thinking. Oh, what the hell, throw in a serve of increased creativity too.
And thirdly, aside from the knowledge of another language, the flow-on effect of learning a language leads to significant social advantages too: a love of learning; greater understanding of their own mother tongue; improved performance across the board in academic and creative pursuits; markedly improved proficiency in learning additional languages; improved communication skills; improved social skills; greater confidence; and a broader world view and cultural acceptance. All round awesomeness. Is there anything else you’d like?
I want to delve a little more deeply into one of these points in particular – the impact across the board on academic and creative pursuits. When people are learning a foreign language, the evidence shows that they perform better than their peers across a wide range of academic and creative areas. Students of language are good at mathematics, and science, and history, and geography, and drama, and music etc. Why is that? Perhaps they are geniuses to start? Perhaps. But the research shows that the process of learning a language is a key factor in creating the high performance in the other areas. Learning the language is causal.
We can see this phenomenon in our own Australian schooling system now where some children are undertaking language immersion programs in high school. Imagine studying all of your subjects in another language! That must be incredibly difficult and would understandably lead to children struggling in the other subjects, don’t you think? Well, actually, the answer is no. The students who participate in immersion programs tend to do BETTER than their peers, even in the non-language subjects, even when they have the disadvantage of having to learn in another language. Fascinating, isn’t it?
But the advantage doesn’t stop after the person finishes learning the language. In fact, the intellectual benefit lasts for a life-time. And interestingly, the earlier the person learnt their second language, the greater the impact. This was proven by some fascinating research from the University College of London that compared bilingual adults who had learned their second language before the age of 5; to bilingual adults who had learnt their second language before the age of 15; to monolingual adults. Even as adults, perhaps 20, 30 or even 40 years later, the people in the first group outperformed the other two groups across the board. And the people in the second group outperformed the monolingual group. Wow. Don’t you want to be in that first group? This is why we say that in language, the early bird really does catch the worm.
Learning a language is a joy, a wonderful achievement and an incredible gift.