21 August 2023
Om de analyse te beginnen, moet er in den geest reeds een synthese aanwezig zijn [In order to begin an analysis, there must already be a synthesis present in the mind] – Johan Huizinga Om
It’s widely accepted in this increasingly globalised and interconnected world that learning a foreign language or knowing a second language can help foster your academic, professional or personal growth. There’s also no shortage of research showing that language learning strengthens parts of the brain crucial for controlling the cognitive processes, of which this article focuses on but a few: decision-making, multitasking, creativity and attentional control.
Many of you reading this probably speak more than one language. For those of you who speak two languages, you’re likely to describe yourself as bilingual. In fact, the term bilingual doesn’t simply describe a person who speaks two languages. There are different types of bilingualism depending on, for example, the age at which you learn the second language or whether your command of that language is passive or active. Bilingualism also differs from multilingualism, notably in the number of learned languages you have at your disposal. Because there are many variations of bilingualism, for consistency and simplicity, we use the term multilingual and its derivatives to refer to having the ability to use more than one language.
Similarly, the term second language is used to describe any language learned after the acquisition of the native language, regardless of whether the learned language is actually the third, fourth or fifth, for example. Finally, foreign language, which refers more generally to any language that isn’t one’s own, is used in place of second language only when quoted from a source and has the same denotation.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the heart of the matter – or rather the grey of the matter – and look at how language learning can boost the brawn and brilliance that make up your brain.
Concision dans le style, précision dans la pensée, décision dans la vie [Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life] – Victor Hugo
Making decisions as trivial as choosing what to watch on the telly can be difficult when your brain isn’t up to the task, like when you’ve had a particularly hard day at work or when your head is foggy because of illness. Making decisions in a second-language context can be all the more daunting, especially when the stakes are high, such as deciding whether to accept a job offer in a multilingual company abroad.
Nicola Del Maschio and his colleagues (Del Maschio et al., 2022) studied how learning a foreign language affected decision-making. They found that knowing two or more languages positively impacts our ability to make choices, particularly when an issue is presented in a second language rather than our native language, by enhancing cognitive control and reducing biases.
First, it is suggested that the increased cognitive load we have to process when encountering a problem in a foreign language encourages, or even forces, us to slow down and carry out the decision-making more carefully. Compare the action of lifting weights versus grabbing a shirt from your closet in the morning. It takes more intentional effort to do strength-training exercises than the more automatic action of deciding what to wear; the load is heavier (quite literally in this case) and, therefore, more deliberate.
Our emotions and perceived responsibility to observe particular cultural norms also affect our decision-making, and it has been argued that the biasing impact of these factors is reduced when processing a problem in a second language. We use more objective reasoning in a second language context because the gaps in our knowledge and proficiency create a feeling of distance from the issue. Of course, as Del Maschio also points out (2022), it’s important to note that many factors, such as your fluency and how often you use the second language, can affect how much or little the biases are reduced.
Das Gleiche lässt uns in Ruhe, aber der Widerspruch ist es, der uns produktiv macht [Sameness leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive] – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
How many of you are reading this while keeping an eye on your phone, while listening to music, while thinking about answering that email, while trying to remember what you need to pick up from the shop later? Are you worried about how you’ll manage to juggle and complete all the things on your to-do lists at home and at work? We all multitask to some degree, but multilingual people are generally better at it.
Learning a language itself is quite the multitask. Not only must you simultaneously access what you know about the components (vocabulary, grammar, sounds, etc.) of each language you know, you must also consider the cultural references, connotations and registers embedded in those languages. That’s no mean feat!
Thankfully, language learning fosters a virtuous cycle of multitasking to improve your multitasking skills. Studies have proven that learning a language has a positive impact on the brain’s ability to handle several streams of information at the same time. It increases the volume of grey matter, areas in the brain crucial for daily functioning, and encourages the multiplication of neural connections that augment the brain’s efficiency (De Luca et al., 2020; Hosoda et al., 2013; Marsh et al., 2020).
So, multilinguals, worry not and multitask away, because you’re well-equipped for the job. And, monolinguals, as you continue reading, consider how the cognitive benefits of learning a new language could facilitate your day-to-day life.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. – Maya Angelou
Speaking of things novel and alternative ways of thinking, creativity is another skill heightened by language learning. The term creativity itself covers a broad scope of definitions: “There are (…) many facets to creativity, and it can be subjective as many might measure creativity differently and include things like imagination, gratification, the value of an idea, differences in the creative process, and how original the idea is” (Artincontext, 2023). For this reason, scientists and language experts often use the term divergent thinking instead. But nomenclature preferences aside, the consensus is that creativity is a product of the exercising of our executive functions, and “the general inclination [is] toward the superiority of bilinguals to monolinguals in performance on measures of creativity” (Gohnsooly & Sawqi, 2012).
And this conclusion tends to be consistent, regardless of where and how the language learning takes place: in a more traditional physical classroom, through independent self-study or in a blended learning context. Some experts, such as Ghonsooly and Sawqi (2010), favour in-person learning experiences for maximum cognitive gain, arguing that “mastering [a new language] in a classroom context may impose even more noticeable changes and developments through the burdensome practice that the learners take charge of” (Ghonsooly and Sawqi, 2010:164). On the other hand, Stein-Smith maintains that “solitary” and independent language learning, such as via an online programme, makes the most significant contributions to the enhancement of creativity (Stein-Smith, 2018).
Because language learners practise what Stein-Smith calls deep work – work requiring the intense exercise of the executive functions – they are more equipped than monolinguals to deal with tasks requiring divergent thinking. Someone learning a language must develop certain habits of mind to improve their language proficiency. These habits include, among others, the ability to focus intensely, switch quickly between concepts, and analyse rationally novel content (2018). Creativity, then, is a positive consequence of the deliberate and reasoned decision-making, flexibility and adaptability of a multilingual mind.
So, your current school-level French may not be sufficient to perform a one-person comedy show in Paris, but it could help you create your own funny puns in French or understand this joke posted by The Language Nerds:
Two cats are having a swimming race. One cat is called One two three, and the other Un deux trois. Which cat do you think won? One two three, because un deux trois cat sank. (2020)
Those of you who get the joke are having a quiet chuckle or mildly cringing – or both. In any case, the play on words has probably got your attention.
Dime como te diviertes y te diré quien eres [Tell to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are] – José Ortega y Gasset
As with divergent thinking, the ability to focus is heightened in multilinguals, and it has been shown time and time again that language learning benefits minds of all ages and at all life stages.
Bialystok and Martin (2004), for example, show how the constant switching between languages – or the inhibiting of one to access another – nurtures attentional control in children (cited in Ghonsooly & Sawqi, 2012). And Erlam, Philip and Feick (2021) explain how the particularly malleable adolescent mind is not only ideal for language learning, but mental stimulation during this period is crucial for healthy cognitive functioning later in life. During adolescence, “synaptic connections are strengthened and unused synaptic connections are eliminated. Because cognitive functions may be lost or diminished if not used, the cognitive stimulation of the adolescent is important” (Erlam, Philip & Feick, 2021).
On the other hand, the acquired cognitive benefits of language learning can extend into adulthood and late adulthood. Bak, for instance, has widely studied the effect of language learning on ageing adults. Unsurprisingly, he found that adults proficient in at least two languages performed better in attention tests and generally had better concentration skills than those who spoke only one language (2014). What’s more, he found that language learning at any stage in life, even adulthood, has benefits that can extend into late adulthood. As Bak (2016) explains, language learning contributes to a cognitive reserve that can help to delay the onset of cognitive disorders such as dementia.
学一门语言，就是多一个观察世界的窗户 [To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world] – Chinese proverb
The benefits of language learning go beyond improving neuroplasticity, maintaining brain health and enhancing the cognitive functions described in this article. Learning a language can also, for example, heighten morphological awareness (e.g., Chen & Schwartz, 2018) and boost short- and long-term memory (e.g., Bratel et al., 2020). There remains, of course, much discussion and some disagreement about, among other questions, the extent of such benefits, limitations of study sample sizes and applicability of results beyond the research context. Nonetheless, the general consensus among experts is that learning a language at any age is an excellent activity to develop and maintain cognitive processes crucial for successful day-to-day functioning – and this is an idea that we at Altissia can fully get behind!
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