Learning another language is hard. For native English speakers living in a world full of people making an effort to learn English, it can seem like a waste of effort. Counterintuitively, the comfortable position of speaking the world’s dominant language puts English speakers at a disadvantage too few realize. Because we don’t bother trying to learn new languages, we lose the fringe benefits that come with the process.
A recent post on the Radiolab blog takes a look at just what some of those fringe benefits are.
Dr. Ellen Bialystock studies the cognitive effects of learning a second language, specifically during childhood. Her findings:
Look, I will never say that bilingual kids are smarter…What we can say is that some of the cognitive processes that are part of intelligence are more developed in bilinguals.
On the neurological side of things, there’s actual, literal growth in the part of the brain devoted to vocabulary.
In practical, applicable terms:
- Learning new, different ways to say things opens up the mind to different ways of thinking. It might not change what thoughts you’re able to have (as was formerly thought), but it does give you different ways of approaching and expressing those thoughts. For those in the business of communicating effectively, it lets you practice and play with methods of wording and structure you may not have considered before.
- A friend of mine who was raised bilingual once told me she argued with an elementary school teacher who insisted there was one right answer to a question: in her world, every question had at least two viable, correct answers. Bilingualism makes it possible to better process ideas that don’t fit easily together, a valuable thinking tool in a complicated world.
- Bialystock’s studies show the bilingual are better at tuning out distractions, an increasingly handy skill in the internet age.
- Her research also suggests bilingualism could help with memory in old age — diminishing the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Most people who have studied a second language at the most basic level are quick to comment that it forces you to learn the grammar of your own language better. In order to learn different tenses and parts of speech, you must gain a refresher in how to talk about grammar, something many of us have forgotten by adulthood, if we ever learned it well at all.
Bialystock’s research mostly focuses on bilingual children, and most of us missed the boat on learning another language as a child, when it’s much easier to gain fluency. Many of the neurological benefits do require fluency to begin taking effect, a state that’s extremely challenging to get to as an adult.
While only so many adults are capable and willing to take on the challenge of linguistic immersion often required to gain fluency, there’s still plenty to be gained by learning what you can. Learning another language tends to go along with learning about another culture as well. Even without reaching fluency, you’ll gain new words, new ideas about grammar, and a greater understanding of the ways other people think and live. It’s hard not to see how that will make you both a stronger writer, and a better thinker.