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6 Benefits of learning a second language

Ten people are sitting at the boardroom in their Montreal office discussing their day-to-day business. As I am sitting there attending for the first time, I immediately become aware that everyone is juggling between English and French with ease. One moment the conversation is in French, the next it switches to English for no apparent reason other than any given idea or topic may be better said or comes more easily to mind in one language as opposed to the other. I better get used to the way this meeting is going right away. Both official languages are used equally and interchangeably and find it so fascinating to be speaking Frenglish.

A linguist by background and speaker of three languages, I am used to being surrounded by other multilingual speakers, who whether by birth, studies or time spent abroad, have come to appreciate the resourcefulness that comes with multilingualism. Over the years, through reading on the topic and swapping notes with other polyglots, I’ve enjoyed the immediate benefits of multilingualism as a traveller—I can order a cerveza at the bar of a Cuban resort, I can ask and receive directions to la Tour Eiffel, I understood why the waiter in Italy laughed when my husband mistakenly asked for cane (dog) on his pizza rather than carne (meat). However, to know that there are many science-based benefits to speaking more than one language, fills me with a renewed pride. Let’s explore what they are:

  1. Improves perception: According to a research of the Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, speaking a foreign language changes the perception of the world. Speakers of more than one language view the world and think differently. In other words, the perception of the world is determined by the wealth of vocabulary one has in store: the more words, the better the perception.
  2. Makes you better at multi-tasking: This is something that really speaks to me. In fact, I’m a professional juggler. The ability to switch between different vocabularies mirrors the ability to juggle multiple tasks. Bilinguals seem to be more adaptable and flexible when it comes to shifting their attention on to a different task and refocus. In the corporate world, this skill is considered a sign of adaptability and flexibility.
  3. Improves your native language: This is not an obvious benefit when you think of it. English speakers rarely stop to think why we say things like “The dinner is on me”. This idiom immediately evokes the image of a clumsy waiter pouring chicken noodle soup all over you. If a speaker of another language asked you why you say that, when you mean you’re going to pay for dinner, you’d probably just say “because this is the way it is.”  In other words, you take what you know for granted. However, the moment you start dipping your toes into the unknown waters of a foreign language, you may find yourself pondering on grammar rules.
  4. Improves memory: A research from the Wallenberg Academy Fellow Umea University, states that being bilingual improves working memory. Multingual speakers often consciously inhibit words that are not relevant to the language they use in any given conversation. They draw from different vocabularies to make selections. I can say dog, chien, cane, and perro to mean a member of the canine family. It’s like getting a workout for the brain. That is to say, treat your brain like a muscle to keep your working memory alive.
  5. Helps make better decisions: This is in my opinion the most fascinating fact. A research has shown that people tend to make better decisions when they think in their second language; reason being is the native language is loaded of emotional content; therefore, decisions do not come from a place of rational thinking. I’ve always thought that I am more rational in English. Emotions like upset or fear suddenly bring me back to my roots in the Bel Paese. Research conducted by the University of Trento in Italy and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom suggests this is because the part of the brain that processes the native language is more intuitive while the part of the brain that processes other languages is more rational.
  6. Experience later onset of Alzheimer and dementia: This one gives me hope. Research conducted at the bilingualism centre at Edinburgh University shows that being bilingual staves off dementia and Alzheimer by four or five years. If that is true, and I still get Alzheimers, what excuses would I have?

So there is more to bilingualism than being able to order a beer in another language and quench your thirst.