Mind Your Language: Learn a New Tongue

January 30, 2020

Why must we take the trouble of learning a new language?

Are you one of those people who know more than one language? Well, then your brain size is larger than a person who only speaks one! This discovery was made by Swedish scientists using brain scans to monitor what happens to humans when they learn a second language.

Language is one of the most important ways humans communicate in a structured manner with each other. The brain coordinates all linguistic activity. Whether it is making a sound to speak or process what is being said, our brain helps us articulate its meaning. While our knowledge is still very limited despite neurological advancements like brain scans, imaging technology, electrophysiology, etc, we have understood that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. The hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex –both related to language learning– grew when we learnt a new language.

Of the magic of languages and myth-busting

Despite these clear facts, many people do not take the trouble of learning a new language. Why? There are tons of myths surrounding learning a language. And here are some of the usual excuses–

Learning a language is simply too difficult, especially as we get older

Linguist and lecturer, Matthew Youlden, who speaks 20 languages himself, elaborates in his TEDxClapham speech that nobody is born with language. He also adds that “there is no cut-off date by which you have to have learned another language.” 

And he is right. 

Kara Morgan-Short, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a colleague concluded that “This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.” 

There is no need to learn another language

There can be nothing farther from the truth. Learning languages help us stay curious, sharp and connected to the world. From helping our cognitive ability to finding a job, learning a new language can be extremely relevant in one's life.

To be an expert, we need to be in a place where the language is constantly spoken

Wrong. We don’t have to relocate to learn a language. There are numerous tools and ways that can help us learn a language by staying exactly where we are. We simply need to learn actively and make it a habit to become acquainted with the nuances of it.

Tackling the tough task of learning a new language

So, now that we have debunked the myths, how do we go about learning a language actively? Most polyglots recommend taking shortcuts and here are some: 

Recognise patterns 

We need to find ways in which the language we are trying to learn is connected to our native tongue. Maybe they have the same roots or words that sound similar. Coco is coconuts in Spanish. And many English words like Avant-garde, bouquet, cliche, motif, panache, are also common French words.

Create a routine

Well begun is half-done but don't leave the work half-done. The more we create a routine for our language-learning, the better we’ll learn. Even a few minutes every day is great. Using an app like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Lingo Deer and others could alert us to learn through notifications. Or better yet, set everyday alarms to pick up new words. 

Learn through multiple sources

Who said books, tapes and apps are the only tools to learn a language? In today’s connected world, we could watch films, television shows, podcasts and more to understand a language. A fun departure from the routine, Netflix and Prime Video are treasure troves of foreign-language content that we could watch. And if you are looking for something free, YouTube has plenty of resources too! 

Live the language

Sing, write or speak in a new language – the more we try to make it a part of our every day, it becomes second nature. Immerse in a language to master it. Or as they say “own the language.”

Make mistakes 

Never be afraid of messing up. When we cook, we graduate to becoming a chef only after our share of burnt dinners. Similarly, when learning a new language, we need to make mistakes and learn from them to find our way through it.

What is the point a.k.a Quel est le point?

Why are we making this effort, again?

Languages can impact our lives in a multitude of ways. Youlden shares, some of the "obvious benefits of speaking another language" – "better pay, more job opportunities, keeping us mentally fit and helping to stay off neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s."

To elaborate, people benefit from learning languages in a multitude of ways. As a child, it helps us learn complex motor skills like juggling or dancing. It also improves our executive function –how we control, direct and manage our activity, attention and ability. 

According to research by psycholinguist Mark Antoniou of Western Sydney University in Australia published by the Annual Review of Linguistics, it has been proven that knowing two languages could “benefit our brains, especially when we age.” That is, language improves our memory,  delaying the incidence of neurological disease like Alzheimer’s. It also improves the overall cognitive ability of the brain by sharpening our thought-process. 

When we learn a new language, our consciousness heightens and we become self-aware when we juggle between two tongues. We get a heightened sense of perception which expands the way we experience, think and conclude. For instance, learning certain languages can make us more perceptive of Colour. Research also indicates that “different languages and cultural groups also carve up the colour spectrum differently.” The Japanese language has a range of words for different shades of blue. So, learning these words while we learn Japanese can help us distinguish more shades of blue than the average English speaker. 

"As well as learning vocabulary and grammar, you're also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world. There's an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition” - Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, Lancaster University.

Even if you do not know more than one language right now it’s never too late to learn a new one. Edinburgh University researchers point out that knowing another language is advantageous no matter how early or late we learn it. As long as we are lifelong learners, we can master it sooner than later. 

So what are you waiting for? Get curious, pick up a language of your choice and embark on the journey of learning


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