Feb 2, 2009

The Benefits of Learning a Second Language

In tough times, it is not uncommon for schools to take out foreign language programs first in a bid to balance an unforgiving budget. But in a world where the immediacy of modern technology and the global market challenges all traditional barriers of culture and communication, the ability to speak multiple languages continues to grow in demand.

The benefits of speaking a native tongue in business and world travel are obvious, but there is an abundance of other benefits in learning another language. Just as proper exercise and a healthy diet help increase the plasticity of one’s brain, so too does the process of learning a new language. When you learn another way of communicating, your brain essentially re-wires itself so that inputs (such as the recognition of everyday objects and their associated nouns) are recognized through several different “paths”. Essentially, the brain becomes more effective at learning.

Brain plasticity is at its highest when we are first born and our mind is just starting to get structured. The brain of an infant is far more malleable than the brain of an adult, as it is not yet wired as specifically as the more experienced adult brain. Concurrently, babies are able to learn languages more quickly.

This, of course, includes all languages, even those that are non-vocal. At Ohio State’s A. Sophie Rogers Infant-Toddler Laboratory School, children as young as nine-months are learning American Sign Language as a viable alternative to crying. When their vocal agility fails, they can communicate their wants and needs to teachers and parents through their hands, signing words like “eat”, “stop”, and “share”.

Bilingualism also helps the elderly by slowing the destructive effects of Alzheimer’s. New studies have shown that those who could speak several languages were more likely to have higher cognitive abilities than their monolingual counter-parts later in life.

While English may be spoken all over the world, learning another language can help the individual in many ways beyond simple communication. It sharpens the mind and opens up new paths of learning, no matter if you are 8 months old or 80 years old.


Brian Barker said...

I notice that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.

Why not decide on a non-national neutral common language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670. A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Jonathan Lopez said...

The adoption of a worldwide, neutral common second language could do a great deal, both in terms of developing international relationships and improving efficiency. However, the likelihood of worldwide acceptance is, in my opinion, unlikely. I think there is a better chance for a worldwide common currency than a worldwide common language. For now, I think, second languages will continue to be much more focused (a utilitarian point of view, such as learning Spanish to conduct business in Mexico).

Bill Chapman said...

What an interestying post! I speak English, Welsh, French, German and Esperanto. I'm sure Brian Bartker is wise to suggest wider use of Esperanto. It may make sense to learn Spanish to conduct business in Mexico, but Spanish is of little help in dealings with, say Bulgaria or Finland. I'm all in favour of all language learning, and I think you've given a good account of the benefits. Sadly, life is not long enough to learn every language on earth, and Esperanto is already of use in a wide range of countries. It was never intended, of course, for Esperanto to take the place of ethnic languages, but to serve as a neutral auxiliary language where needed.

diana.alliata said...
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diana.alliata said...

I think the reason why Esperanto is not so widely spoken might be that it is a language created to communicate, without going into the dept of communication, that is what you express with words, structures and function, what kind of mentality and culture is behind those words.
I think it's not only a question of having common words that everybody can understand.
When you learn a second language, you learn about a nation and its people, you understand how they think through how they say things. Even grammar give you an idea of how people see the world! You learn about culture, about other people and how they are, different in some ways, same in others.
If you try a common language without the ... I don't know in English but in Italian you would call it "substrato", a layer under it, it's an empty effort to imitate something that is grown together with man itself. A pure exercise of style.
But I think communication is more than this.
And it's amazing.

Jonathan Lopez said...

Diana brings up a good point regarding the cultural implications and assumptions exhibited through language.
While I would agree that Esperanto does not necessarily bring the same underlying layer of meaning as other languages, I do not think that it is purely an exercise in style.
Every language certainly brings with it hidden meaning and sub-text. Usually, these underlying layers pertain to some form of national identity or cultural narrative. However, Esperanto was created specifically to supersede national boundaries, and therefore cannot be defined in the same way as other languages.
It is my understanding that Esperanto was created to foster peace and understanding in the world. I would venture a guess that these roots would instill Esperanto speakers with a different kind of sub-text: that of peace and understanding (as opposed to national identity). For example, according to Wikipedia, the very name "Esperanto" means "one who hopes".
I would be interested to hear what a speaker of the language would have to say on this subject!