We all know that speaking multiple languages can improve your chances of employment, enhance your travel experiences, and help you impress dates. But there are other, somewhat startling benefits of second-language acquisition that are probably less well-known.
Now the only language I can claim fluency in is English. (I can, however, order a draft beer in
- Italian: Una birra alla spina, per favore.
- Japanese: Namachu hitotsu.
- Spanish: Una caña, por favor.
- German: Ein fassbier, bitte.
- Hungarian: Egy csapolt sör, kerek szepen.
- Korean: Maekju hana chuseyo.
- Geordie: Could Aa’ve a draft beeah, ye naa what ah mean leik.
because you need to have the essentials down, after all, if you’re going to be traveling abroad.)
Having lived in several different countries, however, we’ve always made an effort to get at least a handle on the local lingo, and since we intend to stay in Spain perhaps indefinitely, we’re pretty serious about becoming fluent.
A bit of research, I found, turned up some unexpected advantages to bilingualism. Here are seven remarkable (and unexpected) reasons you and your kids should learn a second language.
One, you become smarter. Not just in speaking your target language, but in everything.
Seems like weird and wonderful things happen to your brain when you tackle another tongue. Recent studies by both Harvard and Northwestern universities have shown that “learning additional languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind,” which in turn leads to better scores on standardized tests, even in seemingly unrelated subjects such as math and science.
Learning another language actually changes the physical structure of your brain. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “systematic measurable structural changes are present in the brains of individuals who have learned multiple languages,” and after a lot of talk about things like “grammatical morpheme learning” and “the covariation between morphology and phonology,” the authors conclude that “the brain of an adult second-language learner is a highly dynamic place.”
In fact, according to a Penn State study, language learners show an increase “in the density of grey matter in the brain” and “their brain networks…become better integrated, which means they’re more flexible and allows for faster and more efficient learning.”
Two, it improves your decision-making skills.
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that bilingual people were less loss-averse and less emotionally responsive to connotation-laden language, allowing “people to rely more on analytic processes when they make decisions.”
Bilingual brains are also better at filtering out unnecessary information, which also leads to better decision-making. “Whether we’re driving or performing surgery,” says lead researcher Dr. Viorica Marian, “it’s important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn’t.”
Three, it staves off Alzheimer’s disease.
In a study of 211 Alzheimer’s patients, researchers at York University in Toronto discovered that those who were bilingual were diagnosed with dementia on average four years later than their monolingual counterparts – 71.4 years for single-language speakers as opposed to 75.5 for the bilinguals. Even in bilingual patients where the disease was more physically advanced, the effects were found to be much less.
Four, it improves your overall memory.
Your brain, which is most decidedly not a muscle, still insists on acting like one. Memorizing grammatical rules and vocabulary exercises the brain, and studies have conclusively shown that bilinguals are better at “remembering lists or sequences,” and thus “are better at retaining shopping lists, names, and directions.”
Five, it boosts your multi-tasking skills.
Far from the received wisdom that possessing multiple languages “created confusion, especially in children,” a study at Penn State University demonstrated that the mental “juggling” required when switching between languages made “bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time.”
“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking,” said researcher Judith Kroll, director of the Center for Language Science. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking.”
Six, it makes you more perceptive.
A research team at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra found that “multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings. They are more adept at focusing on relevant information and editing out the irrelevant. They’re also better at spotting misleading information.”
Seven, it improves your native language.
Learning another language focuses your attention on the structure and mechanics of language, how it can be altered and manipulated, which in turn provides a set of skills that “can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.”
Wow. And I just wanted to learn Spanish so I wouldn’t embarrass myself (too much) at the kids’ birthday parties and to avoid accidentally ordering pig’s testicles in restaurants.
So there you are. I now expect you all to rush out and enroll yourselves and your kids in Mandarin lessons. And there’s one more personal reason that I have to share.
You’ll probably learn some really cool expressions that we simply don’t have in English.
My two favorites? Drachenfutter (dragon fodder) is the gift that German men buy for their angry ladies after a night out with the boys, and the Japanese term yukimizake (雪見酒) describes, in a single word, the act of sitting in an outdoor hot spring, watching snow fall and drinking warm, unfiltered sake. Awesome.