Pandemic life allotted many of us unexpected free time, compelled us to pick up new or old hobbies, and all around made us question and redirect our interests and goals. Some of us learned to paint, some of us baked, and some of us decided to learn a new language. Speaking in a different language
can be not just gratifying, but glamorous.
Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves in Paris
ordering dinner in fluent French, or shopping in Hong Kong and communicating with ease, in Cantonese, to the salesclerk?
Beyond fulfilling a dormant interest or picking up a new hobby, mastering a new language can also lead to better cognitive function. Studies have shown, via MRI scans, that it literally helps you build a larger brain, particularly around the hippocampus and cerebral cortex areas. Gray matter--the quantity of cells and dendrites--becomes more dense. White matter--the fat that encloses axons--helps your brain duplicate neurons, which makes messages travel more quickly. But what does that mean for us practically, both on a day-to-day basis, as well as a long-term one?
1. Learning a new language improves your concentration, which in turn improves academic - and many other types of - performance
Most studies agree that learning a new language can improve our ability to concentrate, at almost any age. In particular, having conquered a new language has shown that the increased concentration is helpful--even in tasks having nothing to do with language--when there are external distractions, like noisy surroundings or lots of movement.
2. Learning a new language improves your executive function skills, i.e., the ability to manage time and organize your tasks
We’d all love the ability to execute the perfect plan, and indeed, learning a new language helps build executive function. Bilinguality entails the ability to switch languages and not use the wrong word at the wrong time, which translates to a better and broader ability to manage our time. We become more aware of both tasks at hand, and the timetable required to complete those tasks. So, taking up our time by learning a new language could actually ultimately lead to more free time!
Brain health and onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s has been shown to get delayed by learning new languages
Learning and using a new language on a regular basis may even slow down the onset of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. We start to lose memory function as early as age twenty-five, but bilingualism can put up some roadblocks. Even picking up a new language later in life can be beneficial; beyond slowing brain aging, it also engages the whole brain. The elderly are generally not required to use skills in the same way they did when they were younger, balancing work and family life; any mental stimulation is bound to bring positive outcomes.
Learning new languages increases creativity.
Learning a new language isn’t simply a matter of memorizing new words; it innately forces you to contextualize new words, which means gaining a new, broader cultural awareness. You’ll have a more direct insight into different ways the world thinks and works. Flexing these cognitive muscles essentially makes you think outside the box, which lends to enhanced creativity.
Social and emotional intelligence is improved when you learn a new language.
Being able to converse in a different language leads to a variety of social benefits. The simple ability to communicate with people from entirely different cultures will allow for exposure to norms, ideas, and beliefs we may have never otherwise thought about. Gaining a global perspective creates a stronger ability to sympathize, empathize, and therefore, learn from others and the world around us.
Does learning a new language have any downsides?
There is not much existing opposition to the benefits of learning a new language. Some worry that teaching a child two languages at too young of an age might slow down their learning of both languages, but the primary scientific evidence that supports this is applied to children who have suffered previous trauma due to relocation. Others are concerned that asking children to learn a new language may be too stressful; the benefits, however, seem to outweigh most associated stress factors.
What language should you learn?
Do you want to learn a new language, but don’t have a particular one in mind? You might start by refreshing yourself on languages you learned in high school or college, and see if you want to explore it further--you might be surprised at how many of the basics you remember! Or, you might want to choose by global popularity--Mandarin Chinese is the most prevalently used language in the world, with over a billion speakers. Spanish is widely spoken in the United States, so you might desire the ability to be able to converse with a wider range of people in America. But for whatever reasons, you may choose to learn Korean online, which is also a reasonable option if you have family in Korean or will be working or studying there.
Whatever language you opt to conquer, go forth knowing that the benefits are many!