Benefits of Learning Languages

For the other posts in this series:
Introduction & Credentials
Practicalities of Learning Languages
Language Teaching Problems I – Possible Causes
Language Teaching Problems II – Symptoms & Side-effects
Curing Language Trauma I – Setting the Stage
Curing Language Trauma II – Working on the Language
Benefits of Learning Languages

So in the previous posts we’ve covered the practicalities, the failings of many educational systems as regards languages, and how to cure or prevent the language trauma these systems tend to create by creating a better environment and working on the language in the right ways. But the big question of all this is: Why? What does one get out of all this? Now that we’ve covered how to learn languages and how not to learn them, let’s do something different and discuss the benefits of it, which actually extend far beyond the immediately obvious.

The Obvious Benefits

Social and Professional Networking

Naturally, speaking foreign languages helps you interact directly with people from different countries and origins. This of course allows you to make friends from different backgrounds and with different outlooks, which will enrich your own cultural experience and knowledge. But it also allows you to pursue additional career opportunities, both locally and internationally. Yes, local companies will often require knowledge of multiple languages in order to deal with foreign clients or other business partners. Non-native English speakers will also doubtless recognize how in so many multinational companies English is for all intents and purposes the official language.

Traveling & Living Abroad

And of course there is the possibility of traveling abroad yourself, whether for tourism or to move there. We already addressed the professional opportunities, but just being in a different country and being able to communicate with the locals in their own language will give you a much greater cultural immersion and exposure than you can obtain as an armchair traveler back home reading books. You will be able to visit fascinating new places, get around buying food and souvenirs, ask for directions, participate in local cultural events and traditions, meet locals in so many different ways, and generally connect with them at a level far beyond anything else.

Which leads me to another advantage to learning even just a little of the language to begin with: everywhere you go, people appreciate the effort, and on the contrary dislike people coming in with a condescending tone assuming everybody speaks their own language. So the next time you travel, learn your “excusez-moi”, your “اعفو ”, your “Спасибо” or your “ください”. You don’t need to be fluent to connect at this level. In fact, faced with these efforts and if your own level in their language isn’t up to scratch, the locals will be far more willing to return the favor and make an effort to speak to you in your language. And needless to say, if you’re living there, you will be able to learn a lot more and improve a lot more and a lot faster if you have more of a base to improve from before you go.

The Less Obvious Benefits

For the Brain

Studies have shown that knowing more languages delays the onset of age-related cognitive deficiencies like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by at least 4 years. In fact, it can even prevent Alzheimer’s entirely! This is all part of the general recommendation to keep your brain busy with various logic tasks (chess, math, puzzles, etc). In fact, it has been shown that, contrary to popular knowledge, new brain cells are still created throughout our entire lives . What’s more, it’s also been proven that learning is one of the factors that increase or encourage this neurogenesis. Thus learning languages helps generate neurons that will in turn increase learning abilities, memory and other activities in other areas.

Other Mental Benefits

But it goes far beyond all of that. Learning and speaking multiple languages has been shown to increase many actual cognitive abilities including:

  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Reasoning
  • Creativity
  • Creative problem solving
  • Concept formation
  • Out-of-the-box thinking
  • Spatial abilities
  • Ability to switch perspectives

On the more practical side, it’s been determined that learning languages boosts multitasking abilities, observation and attention to detail. This is because when a multilingual person speaks in one language, the others aren’t “deactivated” as they do so. And when they have to interpret an input, they do it simultaneously through all of their languages and all those perspectives.

Memory is also very much trained and increased through learning languages, for obvious reasons: in order to learn languages you need to memorize lots of words and grammatical concepts, but also thousands of extra patterns and expressions to later recognize and apply when speaking the languages. And precisely because in order to remember the words long-term one has to process them repeatedly through short-term memory, it really trains both.

Being multilingual also helps understand a wider variety of situations than before, thanks to etymology and shared roots. Indeed, with access to a wider range of words and concepts across different languages, and the relationships between them, making connections between different concepts becomes easier and more natural. Furthermore, as the common expressions and terminologies don’t usually match perfectly from one language to the next, it also helps gain more perspective on certain things because of this variety of expressions and therefore points of view, not to mention the exposure to the points of view of native speakers. For example, where English speakers call unemployed people “job seekers”, French speakers call them “demandeurs d’emploi”, or “job requesters”. This example highlights a fundamental difference in how this concept is viewed from each side of the language barrier, and can shed a lot of light on the wider behaviors within each culture. This allows for a much deeper cultural understanding and exposure, which provides even more perspective on whatever topics come up for discussion.

The Counterintuitive Benefit

And finally, learning more languages forces you to anchor what you learn to what you know, which in turn forces you to fine-tune your knowledge and mastery of your own first language. It could be to understand the articles and how they’re used in each case in order to better understand German declined articles (where the can be translated, depending on case and gender, as der, das, die, den, dem or des). Or to get a feel for the subjunctive again in order to pick up the subtleties of Portuguese tense matching (se tivesse isso, seria bom – “if I had this it would be good”). Or to notice spelling trends connected with the history between the two languages (the ˆ on French vowels indicating letters that have disappeared in the past but are still present in cognates in other languages, like Sp. prestar vs. Fr. prêter), which can help French people remember the proper spelling of their own words.

Yes, learning languages has so much more to offer than an opportunity to show off or order a coffee in Venice or Moscow or Cairo. It can help develop the brain and its abilities, and provide many other advantages during interactions with other people. And it can help increase mastery of one’s own native language.

I hope I’ve managed to prove to you, in this post, how much one stands to gain by learning languages. And I hope that the previous posts have managed to prove to you that not only is learning a language possible at any age, but also that it isn’t nearly as difficult as many think or as some teachers seem to impress on their students. And with all that, I hope I’ve given you the motivation and encouragement you needed to take this step yourselves in future, or keep going with it if you’ve already started. Thank you very much for following this series, feel free to share these articles with whomever you think they could help. I’ll see you soon with more posts.

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