6 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language (and Help Your Brain)
English has been called the lingua franca of today’s world. “Hi,” “bye” and “thank you” are known around the world and English is part of the curriculum for young students. In France, a debate is underway about teaching courses in French universities in English; the proposal has generated quite an uproar out of fears that French could be marginalized in its own country.
Though English is used so widely, there are still many reasons for native speakers of English (among which I count myself) to learn a foreign language. If you’re looking for a summer project, learning a new language — even just the basics! — is one to consider.
1. Learning a language is good for your brain.
Scientists have found a link between speaking more than one language and the prevention of Alzheimer’s. Earlier research had found that those who have been bilingual since childhood have improved executive functioning — the “higher order” thinking involved in making decisions — as they age. Bilingual seniors have, it was found, an enhanced ability for switching attention, a skill that often wanes with age.
Other research has found that learning a language at an accelerated rate can help some parts of the brain to grow. While it is the case that children have an easier time learning new languages, adults’ brains can be “re-wired” from intense foreign language study. It’s never too late to try to learn.
2. The Internet and computers offer many great tools for learning a foreign language.
Websites and software programs abound that can instruct you in the basics of a language. If you’re not inclined to learn everything about conjugating the verb “to be” in Spanish or Greek, you can also find offers plenty of resources such as lists of commonly used phrases for travelers. While I used to have to search out bookstores that sold newspapers and books in foreign languages, these are now readily available on the Internet.
3. People around the world are learning English, but understanding varies.
Yes, English is taught around the world, with many students in China and elsewhere starting to study it in their elementary years, but a non-native speaker’s grasp of the language varies. American universities have been eager to recruit and enroll students from China, many of whom can pay to attend. But quite a few lack skills in speaking and comprehension. A company that advises American universities and colleges about China found that only 18 percent of Chinese students who can afford tuition at U.S. schools have advanced linguistic skills.
4. Companies are looking for people who know multiple languages.
While Westerners seeking jobs in Asia could once count on knowing English to help them find employment in the financial and other white-collar sectors, many companies now require knowledge of Mandarin. One reason is that younger generations of local residents have the job skills and education — and Mandarin — needed by companies who no longer need to look to Europeans and Americans. Another is the ever-growing economic power of Asia and of China in particular.
5. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and, therefore, a country of many different languages.
Those who think that only English should be spoken in the U.S. won’t agree with me on this one! I grew up speaking English but some of my older relatives who had emigrated from southern China at the start of the 20th century only spoke Cantonese. I never really learned that language, though I did study some Mandarin in college. But the experience of hearing a different language taught me that there’s more to communicating than just words.
I hear Spanish spoken all the time around New Jersey — in restaurants, by my son’s school bus driver, by my students. I’ve never formally studied it and have made it a point to learn phrases and words.
6. The phrase “lost in translation” is all too true.
Another lesson I learned from hearing Cantonese constantly while I was growing up, and from studying foreign languages in school, is that there are all kinds of things that can be said in different languages that are hard to express in another. I teach ancient Greek and Latin to college students and, for them, the hardest part (more than learning grammar and memorizing vocabulary) is translating — rendering what some ancient Roman historian wrote more than 2,000 years ago into their 21st-century American English idiom.
It’s an English in which we eat bananas and drink tea; in which we study algebra or kung fu or the declining population of cheetahs. We can thank the influence of foreign languages for all those words (and lament that it lacks some like the German “schadenfreude” to express certain emotions). It’s well to quote the Roman poet Horace to “carpe diem” — seize the day! — and start learning a new language.
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