How learning another language can boost your wellbeing
In last week’s column for the Irish Sunday Mirror I talked about how the language we use – words, descriptions and stories – affects our wellbeing. In Week 4 of my 10 Weeks to Wellbeing series, I described the wellbeing benefits of lifelong learning. This week I’m going to put the two together, and share some of the mental, psychological and practical benefits of learning another language.
In my workshops and coaching I describe confidence as being a combination of two factors: self-esteem – how we feel about our value or worth, and self-efficacy – how we feel about our ability to do a task. Our educational experiences can have a big impact on either or both. Students – and their teachers – can wrongly interpret poor academic performance as meaning they’re ‘no good’ at a subject. (One friend of a friend was told by his French teacher at school that he ‘had no head for languages’, and he only barely passed his exams. At university, he met a French girl and suddenly had a fresh motivation to learn – now he’s married to her and living and working in France as an engineer, and is fluent. So much for that teacher’s opinion.)
Worse, students can interpret failing at one subject more widely as meaning they’re ‘stupid’ – one word I would suggest banning from your vocabulary! But many factors affect academic success; motivation, workload, social factors, available resources, whether a teacher’s particular teaching style is a match for a learner’s learning style and so on.
Memories of grammar drills, vocabulary lists, unnatural-sounding dialogues and whacky songs put many people off learning another language in later life. (Personally I liked the funky Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire? Not to mention Nino Ferrer’s Le Téléfon.) But learning a language now can be a much different experience. For those who like the structure of classes, contact with good teachers and formal qualifications, language night classes are popular. For people who prefer to learn outside the classroom, there are podcasts like Radio Lingua and LanguagePod101 and language learning CDs (try the Michel Thomas series) for learning at home or on the go. Learning apps such as Duolingo, Flashcards+, iAnki or Memrise make language learning easy and fun, international internet radio, online films/programmes and online newspapers allow you to immerse yourself in a language. For at-a-glance verb conjugations, there’s verbix.com. And for conversation, local language learner meet-ups (search on Facebook and meetup.com) and online ‘language cafes’ like Cafe Mocha allow you to find fellow learners and native speakers of the language you’re learning who are keen to trade conversation in yours. Lots of teachers offer one-to-one tuition over Skype; search for the language you’re interested in on iTalki.com.
If you previously had a negative experience of language learning, or just never had the opportunity, learning at your own pace with the tools available these days could restore damaged confidence in this area. Otherwise, proving to yourself (and perhaps to others) that you’re capable of learning new skills is great for your confidence – too many people stop themselves from discovering or developing abilities with a simple-but-powerfully-limiting ‘I don’t think I could do that’. At the very least, wouldn’t it feel great to able to read signs or order your food and drink in the locals’ language in your favourite holiday destination? Start small with a few phrases you’ll actually use (try linguanaut.com) and see if you get the bug.
Language learning has been found to have a protective effect against cognitive decline. In a study of 184 elderly patients with signs of dementia who attended a Toronto memory clinic between 2002 and 2005, bilingual patients had an onset of dementia symptoms at an average age of 75.5 years, whilst the monolingual group began to experience symptoms at 71.4 years1. Further research in 2013, by Edinburgh University and Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, studied 648 people from a range of economic and educational backgrounds. The researchers found a similar result; symptoms of dementia showed up, on average, 4.5 years later in bilinguals compared to people who only spoke one language. The results even held true for people who were bilingual but illiterate, suggesting that the benefits don’t depend on education2.
Progress in neuroscience is throwing up more and more fascinating information about how the brain changes through language learning. A recent study of students in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy showed greater growth in the hippocampus and areas of the brain associated with language learning, compared to a control group of students of other subjects3. Different parts of the brain developed to different degrees depending on how well the students performed and how hard they worked. A study undertaken by the University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology studied 853 participants who underwent intelligence testing in 1947 and were re-tested between 2008 and 20104. It found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities than might have been predicted from their original test. The strongest effects showed up in general intelligence and reading abilities, and positive effects occurred in both participants who learned a second language earlier in life and those who acquired it later in life. So it’s never too late to start learning.
Various studies have shown a link between additional language acquisition and improved memory. Two studies published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2013 measured the performance of bilingual and monolingual kids on various tasks involving working memory. They showed that bilingual children had an advantage over monolingual children when it came to working memory, especially when the tasks were complex.
Being able to list an additional language on your CV is a great boost for job-seekers, increasing employability options in our global economy. Whether you want to seek work abroad or with a local company with international offices or clients, language skills continue to be in demand and well rewarded. If you’re self-employed, export your products or services and/or travel for business purposes, the advantages in terms of networking and international sales are obvious. Even being able to speak a little of your target market’s language, rather than being fluent, can have an impact. To give a personal example, in 2009, I was asked to compère the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission (NIMIC) showcase at MIDEM, in Cannes, in French and English. Whilst most of the delegates could have understood the English just fine, and my French was very rusty, NIMIC wanted to show respect to the host country by presenting the acts in the local language as well as English. Such efforts are greatly appreciated in international networking, and help build rapport in business relationships. In my case, talking about my “Eurovision”-type experience on social media led to me getting booked for more local speaking/MC work.
Other advantages of speaking more than one language include increased focus, better multi-tasking, better listening skills and perception, and of course, increased cultural awareness. In Ireland, many people are discovering or rediscovering a love of the Irish language, helped along by some of the technologies mentioned above (see talkirish.com and the Irish Gaelic Translator Forum, for example), by a flourishing Irish education sector and an increased Irish-language media. Whether you’re wanting to deepen your appreciation of home or of distant lands, language learning is a truly rewarding way to expand your mental horizons.
And when you don’t want to take it too seriously:
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1Chertkow et al. (2010). Multilingualism (but not always bilingualism) delays the onset of Alzheimer disease: evidence from a bilingual community. Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders, 24(2), pp. 118-25. doi: 10.1097/WAD.0b013e3181ca1221.
2Alladi et al. (2013). Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. Neurology. doi: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4
3Mårtensson, J. and Lövdén, M. (2011). Do intensive studies of a foreign language improve associative memory performance? Frontiers in Psychology, 2(12). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00012
4Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M. and Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology, 75, pp. 959–963. doi: 10.1002/ana.24158
5Morales, J., Calvo, A., Bialystok, E. (2013). Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114(2), pp. 187–202. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2012.09.002