Learning Languages Will Turn You Into a Super-Human! Yoga for the Brain and Other Reasons Learning Languages is Good for You

Monday, March 16, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Ever wonder whether learning a new language is beneficial outside of being able to talk to new and interesting people? If so, I have a special treat for you. And if you want more information on the benefits and struggles of bilingual individuals, check out The Psycholinguistics of BilingualismBilingual: Life and RealityTongue-Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education and A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism (Parents' and Teachers' Guides).

By: Olga Mecking

Even before I became a linguist and had my own trilingual kids, I was a language geek. I speak five languages (Polish, German, English, French and Dutch) and use at least three of them in everyday conversation. 

Being bilingual is not uncommon in other parts of the world the way it is in America. Instead of languages, guns and bacon, I associate America with superheroes. And each of you people can become super human and have fun doing it.  All it takes is learning a language. I am going to go all nerdy and science-y on you, but stick with me to learn how new languages gives you super human powers. (Cue evil laugh).

1. Learn a Language and Use More of Your Brain

Processing language is a complex activity1 involving several parts of the brain, including Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area and the inferior parental lobule. Understanding also involves an understanding of auditory and visual stimuli and correct evaluation of social and cultural context. 

The fact that we understand anything is really a superpower.

Mothers around the world, while they speak different languages, communicate with their babies in the same way: they use higher-pitched voice registers, put more stress on the word they want to teach their child, and say it in a sing-song tone of voice. This nauseating phenomenon is known as "motherese" and helps babies learn languages. Not sure it works in adults, although it would probably make learning more hilarious if you instructor tickled your chin while trying to get you to pronounce stuff correctly. Or maybe that’d just be weird. You decide.

2. Make Better Decisions. Sometimes. 

When you speak two languages on a daily basis, you make a choice each time you decide which language to speak. Sometimes you don’t even notice, but you make that choice depending on the situation and your audience. And knowing how to make even this little decision can affect your overall decision making skills for the better. It’s constant practice in decisiveness.

Having said that, I switch between three and four languages every day and can’t for the love of God make a reasonable decision. But that’s probably a side effect of having too many children or too little coffee.  

3. Stay Young Forever! (Or at Least Have a Superhuman Memory.)

If you want to keep your brain fit2, all it takes is learning another language. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the benefits are there. Research shows that bilingualism delays dementia3 and Alzheimer’s disease4

I know what you’re thinking: Better ability to communicate AND less forgetfulness in later life? Sign me the heck up! 

While the best period to learn a language is from birth, anyone can learn to speak a new language. It’s better than crossword puzzles and freaking bingo. 

4. Mind Control

Okay, so maybe you can’t control other peoples’ minds, but you own brain might have more control of itself. 

Many times I found myself in this situation: someone speaks German to me, then the other person speaks English and I need to translate for them. 

The usual response is something like: “Multiple people speaking at the same time? Confusing. Please excuse me. If you need me, you’ll find me under the bed.” 

Not so if you speak several languages. With two languages the brain is constantly choosing between two systems which results in better executive control5. Better brain function! Whoo hoo! 

My brain switches back and forth automatically and suddenly language comes out. Like MAGIC. It’s seriously awesome, people. I can block out all the noise that happens when people talk and do something sensible with it. It’s also nice to be able to use myself as the good example (for once). 

5. Enhanced Abstract Thinking and Bad-Ass Logic Skills

Do you really think the word “dog” reminds you of a dog?  

Instead of actually describing the dog’s dog-ness, it’s more of a convention: let’s call this here four-legged , hairy, woofing creature “dog” shall we? But the word “dog” has nothing to do with the actual animal. 

Billingual kids understand this. They have a looser connection between the word and its meaning, resulting in a more flexible and creative use of language6. If you speak many languages, you know that the word dog has nothing to do with the animal it describes and could just as well be called chièn (French), pies (Polish), Hund (German), cane (Italian). When children learn two languages and regularly switch between them, they have a greater understanding of language structures—something known as metalinguistic awareness7. Because of this, bilinguals are better at recognizing patterns of abstract thinking in everyday life.

6. Grow Your Brain Like A Super Villain!  

Bilinguals have denser grey matter in the brain and bilingual kids do better in reading comprehension tasks. On the other side, some studies actually show no cognitive advantage and bilingualism researcher Angela de Bruin even suggests that many of the benefits of bilingualism could be seen as a case of publication bias8. So maybe simply learning another language won’t turn you into a human being with supernatural abilities, but it will definitely be a good exercise for your brain. Think brain yoga. 

7. Self-esteem

It’s hard when you start learning a language, especially as an adult. You try to talk to people and they ignore you, respond in a different language, or talk realllyyyyy slooowly because apparently you’re an idiot. Total humiliation. Here you are, an accomplished big human being, with a two-year-old’s grasp of the language around you. 

Persistence, people. If you’re learning that language, one day you’ll manage to go out and do something formidable. Like buying bread in the new language. Asking for directions. Anything, really. This is when you start feeling high, high, high (but smarty-pants high, not the Colorado type). When you’re learning a language, there is always something to work on. But the more you do it, the better you get. It’s satisfying. It boosts self-esteem. Plus having an extra skill is always just plain fun.

Not Colorado fun, but still. 

Olga Mecking is a Polish translator, blogger and writer living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three trilingual children. When not blogging or thinking about blogging, she can be found reading books, drinking tea or cooking. Find her on her blog, The European Mama or on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for photos from the Netherlands and wherever her travels take her.

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Citations
  1. http://www.santafe.edu/media/workingpapers/08-12-047.pdf
  2. http://comm.soc.northwestern.edu/bilingualism-psycholinguistics/files/bilingualbrains.pdf
  3. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393206004076
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21060095
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22464592
  6. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1953.tb01398.x/abstract;jsessionid=468F8130CA70DF940BA4346DFEF6FA8F.f04t01
  7. http://rer.sagepub.com/content/80/2/207
  8. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/04/0956797614557866.abstract


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