Even if you don’t need to speak like a local, research shows learning a foreign language has impressive benefits.
As a student I learned only a smattering of words in my high school German classes. I’m not alone. Less than one percent of Americans master a foreign language in the classroom. And like, I suspect, many others I was OK with sticking with English.
Then I grew up and became an expat, which led to me spending the last decade trying to master Greek. It has been challenging, to say the least. Despite my best efforts I still struggle to express my thoughts, regularly embarrass myself with my lack of comprehension, and curse whoever dreamed up the complexities of Greek grammar.
But yet I continue the struggle. Why?
It’s not mainly for practical reasons. Nearly everyone in my corner of the world speaks English. Nor am I (as far as I know) a masochist. Instead, even though I leave many lessons massively frustrated, I’ve glimpsed through all the difficulties a fact that I missed back in Frau Hepp’s high school classes. Learning a foreign language stretches my thinking and enriches my brain. In short, I think it makes me smarter.
I am happy to report experts say I’m not imagining things. A host of studies show an impressive list of benefits to learning a foreign language. Taken together they just might make you reconsider whether a second language is worth your time (or your child’s) even if you don’t need to be able to speak like a local when you travel.
1. You’re more rational in a second language.
Humans are famously quirky and emotional, with brains that make decisions for all sorts of reasons other than logic. That’s doubtless true across the world, but training yourself to think in a language other than your mother tongue can actually help your brain to be a bit more rational.
University of Chicago researchers have demonstrated that thinking about problems in a foreign language slows you down and strips some of the emotion from them (probably because you don’t have as rich a palette of words and memory to influence your thinking). The result is more logical decision making, though this is only an option if you have a second language to think in.
2. Bilingualism can make you more creative.
As many have observed, creative output is dependent on creative input. The more interesting and diverse ideas and stimuli you expose your brain too, the more likely you are to make unexpected connections that lead to valuable, new ideas. For this reason alone it’s not a huge shock that the novelty of a second language might lead to greater creativity.
But research shows that language learning can increase creativity in other ways too. Having a richer vocabulary helps us understand the world in unexpected ways and look at problems from fresh perspectives.
“Examine the case of rainbow, which is arcoiris in my native language. In English, it’s a bow made of rain, while in Spanish it’s an arch (arco) made of the spectrum of light (iris). But you need rain and light to make a rainbow. Each language saw the same phenomenon, but only 50 percent of each made it to their word,” writer Ivan Miguel has pointed out. Speakers of different languages construct their understanding of the world differently. No wonder multiple languages lead to more ideas.
3. Learning a foreign language raises your EQ.
This is one I can definitely speak to from experience. When you’re learning a language your actual comprehension of the words around you is often spotty, but you still have to find ways to function. As a result, you become hyper vigilant about body language and contextual clues to figure out what’s going on and how to respond. Researchers refer to this as “practical intelligence.”
This capacity helps you avoid accidentally laughing at an anecdote about someone’s sick grandmother you misheard, but it also strengthens your observational and empathetic muscles. And that raises your EQ, no matter what language you’re speaking.
4. Bilinguals cope better with the unknown and unpredictable.
This is a biggie. We all know the world is changing at a whip-lash inducing rate and old certainties are looking increasingly shaky. But unpredictability is nothing new to those who have immersed themselves in a foreign language and culture. And, as with any other skill, you get better at handling unpredictability the more you practice it.
“Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity,” explains linguistic professor Amy Thomson on The Conversation.
Employers have taken notice. As INSEAD professor Linda Brimm explains, those who have grown comfortable with the ambiguities of foreign languages and cultures possess mental agility that is much in demand among top companies.
5. Learning a language keeps your brain sharp as you age.
Even if you’re pushing retirement age, signing up for that evening Spanish class might be a good idea. Other studies have shown that bilingualism can help stave off cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia in older folks.
“Bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,” psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok told the BBC about her research.
So why not download that language app, sign up for the night class, or agree to that foreign assignment? I can promise that a second language will sometimes frustrate the heck out of you. But it will also make you smarter.