10 Good Reasons to Learn Foreign Languages

  • Discover Oneself

There is often a language that plays a special role in a family’s history. This language is that of the local land, forefathers and roots, culture or religion, or even in-laws. You may have come across this little child whose family immigrated one generation ago. For lack of a common language, she cannot communicate with her grand-parents who stayed back in their country. As she grows older, more and more questions come to her mind. By learning her parents’ language, she will also discover the culture and the country of her ancestors, and better understand where she comes from.

  • … and discover the Other

You may be in a large city or a small village, in the desert or the jungle, in an office or on the beach, abroad or in your own country. When the Other sees how you make the effort to address them in their own language, they will turn their head towards you, stare at you and start smiling. Whether your accent is barely detectable or clearly audible, whether your grammar is already perfect or still perfectible, the Other is moved by your respectful behaviour. They relax, open up, ready to share more personal thoughts now that a psychological filter has been removed. Language knowledge is an invaluable gate-opener towards the Other.

Nelson-Mandela-on-Language

Nelson Mandela on Language

 

  • Go on a trip

Be it for holidays, a stopover or a business trip, knowing the local language can change drastically your experience. Not knowing the language, have you ever been hostage to the exclusive grip of a guide monopolizing all exchanges with the outside world? Have you ever seen foreigners fall prey to a complete misperception of the host country because they could not communicate? Conversely, has the local language never made contact with locals, planned or not, much easier? It will sometimes enable you to find your way, have dinner at night, even get your passport back or go through customs.

  • … or go for good

Between 1990 and 2010, about 160 million migrants changed countries. Do you happen to be one of them? Whatever the reason to migrate, it is life-changing. Having a good command of the host language is a pre-requisite to social and economic integration. In some countries being granted a visa –let alone citizenship- is subject to a minimum level in the host country’s language. Parents sometimes struggle and prior knowledge of the language is a decisive advantage; children usually adjust much quicker and soon surpass their parents.

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Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)

Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)

 

  • Be successful at one’s career

As globalization increases, there are few jobs and positions left that do not require at least one, maybe two or even three foreign languages. English has become the unchallenged lingua franca of science. In business, one of the job interviews could take place in a foreign language. Language skills will enable the applicant to stand out from multiple candidates with similar résumés, if she manages to put forward her knowledge of Japanese, Spanish or Bahasa at the right moment. As for incumbent employees, some see their career development hampered by their weaknesses in international communication.

  • … and start by succeeding in one’s studies

The role of languages at school increases as that in life. In Singapore for instance, pupils take one of the two most important exams of their lives at the end of Primary School; half of the subjects are languages –English and their mother tongue. Elsewhere in the world, language level might decide which high school students will attend, impact significantly the matriculation results or give a huge edge in a University application file.

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The language section of a resume found on LinkedIn, exceptional yet increasingly common

 

 

  • Live better, live longer

Language practice shares cerebral mechanisms with those involved in old-age neurological diseases. Thus it has been noted that Alzheimer’s disease sets off on average five years later for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Do your linguistic gym and live better!

  • … and increase your cognitive capabilities

Knowing several languages is the ability to switch from one to another by focusing on the language used while ‘inhibiting’ the others. Multi-linguals resort to this capability even in non-linguistic fields. They demonstrate a bigger intellectual flexibility, a better ability to deal with ambiguity or apparent contradiction, and can cope with information while ignoring unnecessary or spurious signals.

factorial-task (credit dimensional-overlap.com)

Bilinguals are more successful than monolinguals at classical Strimulus Response tests where the stimulus contains conflicting elements to be processed or ignored (credit dimensional-overlap.com)

 

  • Marvel at other languages

You may be amongst those passionate people for whom discovering any new language triggers jubilant amazement. What sounds has this new language produced? What ingenuity will it come up with to convey such or such concept? Will it be isolating, flectional, agglutinative? How will it address, for instance, the possessive, given that some languages will alter the possessor and others the possessed, or both, or neither, some resorting to an affix, others to a particle, and others still elegantly doing without any grammatical appendix? Isn’t it extraordinary that the French version of this post should have 5368 characters in 1006 words, the English one 4978 characters in 980 words, and the Chinese one only 2174 Chinese characters?

  • …and understand better one’s own language

One’s mother tongue remains for very long the obvious response, the one found without having to look for it, the only possible option that no one even thinks of challenging. But opening up to a second language puts things in perspective. Without a doubt an additional language enables to further one’s native language knowledge. The language structure that such and such language has adopted becomes more palatable when compared to others: the origin of words is unveiled, roles in the sentence take shape and the meaning of words is refined. If shadow and shade have the same translation in French, does it not prove blatantly that ombre has two distinct meanings? Even the infamous agreement of the French past participle when used with the avoir auxiliary can be better understood if one is introduced to the Hindi ergative.

Levels of language structure (credit glogster.com)

Various levels of language structure : Phonology – Morphology – Syntax – Semantics – Pragmatics (credit glogster.com)

 

And what are YOUR reasons?

Why Bilingualism Is Good for Your Brain

Today, more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. There are obvious advantages to being bilingual, such as the ability to communicate with people from all over the world- for business or simply pleasure. But above and beyond the social benefit, scientific research has revealed the beneficial impact bilingualism has on the brain. VivaLing offers you an inventory of the latest scientific discoveries.

 

1- Bilingual children are more attentive and concentrated

 

Bilingual children are able to focus on a specific goal and inhibit disruptive elements. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Diane Poulin-Dubois (Concordia University in Montreal) in 2010. The difference between bilingual children and monolingual children is that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain which is used for complex cognitive processes such as planning or deductive reasoning, is more active in bilingual brains.

 

2- Bilingualism helps develop adaptability

 

In 1999, Ellen Bialystok (York University in Toronto) demonstrated that bilingualism promotes  adaptability in early childhood. In her experiment, the researcher formed two groups of children: monolinguals and bilinguals, aged up to  5 years old. Each child had to classify cards with red or blue, circles or squares, firstly by shape and subsequently by color. The outcome was that the bilingual children performed better than the monolingual children. The latter, disturbed by the change of instructions (moving the classification from form to color), were less able to adapt.

 

3- Bilingualism can delay the onset of mental illness

In 2010, researchers from the York University in Toronto studied 211 patients with dementia.  They specifically analyzed the history of the disease (the age from which it occurred, the different stages of aggravation, etc.) and the level of the patients’ education (including the mastery of two or more languages). Data analysis showed that in multilingual patients the disease occurred 4.3 years later than in monolingual patients. Another study published in the Neurology  journal in 2013 confirmed these results. On average bilingualism delays the onset of diseases like Parkinson or Alzheimer, for 4-5 years. Intense cerebral activity maintains “cerebral play” thus delaying neurological degeneration.

 

4- Bilingual children are more creative

In a 2010 study in Israel, bilingual and monolingual children, aged between 4 and 5,  were asked to draw either a house or a fantasy flower. Examination of the drawings showed that the bilingual children were more imaginative, more creative, and had a better mastery of abstract concepts.

5- Bilingualism improves planning and problem-solving skills

In 2015, Spanish researchers highlighted the fact that people with two languages ​​perform complex, cognitive tasks, executive control functions such as planning and reasoning, more quickly and efficiently. In general, neuropsychologists agree that bilingualism increases the performance of the cognitive system’s executive functions, all processes involving attention, selection, inhibition, change, etc. Bilingualism creates new connections within the brain. With a more advanced development capacity, bilingual children have the ability to understand and move more easily from one subject to another. Hence the importance of developing bilingualism from an early age in order to acquire facilities in other fields later on.

Why Children Learn Better: Science Is Shedding Light

The man on the street has noticed it and science has confirmed it: children are more able to learn foreign languages and achieve high proficiency than adults. What are the reasons? All else being equal, neurology and psychology will provide us with the answers.

Neurological explanations address the state of the brain and its ability to carry out a given task at a certain stage of its development. Several hypotheses were explored as early as the 60ies. One dealt with brain maturation: the brain was thought to be like a slate of clay which, once carved with the mother tongue, could neither be erased nor re-written nor complemented by a foreign language. Another explanation, focusing on native language interference, claimed that once the mother tongue had been acquired, the learning mechanism itself was completely dismantled in order to reallocate neural tissues – a scarce resource – to other tasks. It is known today that some of these extreme explanations are wrong and others, incomplete and oversimplifying.

However, other age-related phenomena affecting foreign language learning are now much better known. The first one is the decrease of brain plasticity over time. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the changes in neural pathways brought about by environmental or experiential stimuli. Each new learning (be it knowledge or skill) triggers new brain circuitry creation so as to transfer and process the information. Conversely, unused connections are disposed of in order to optimize the brain functioning and performance. At birth, each neuron (and there are about 100 billion of them) has 2500 synapses enabling neural connections. At age 2-3, the number of synapses per neuron increases to … 15000, that is to say twice the average adult number. In fact, by neural pruning, synaptic density progressively decreases from mid-childhood and teenagehood onwards, at a pace specific to each brain area. In addition, myelination (the sheathing of axons) reinforces the effectiveness of existing neural connections but is detrimental to the brain’s flexibility to set up new neural pathways. Specialization of brain areas to specific and precise functions carries on. Neuroplasticity inexorably decreases with brain maturation. Processes like language learning enjoy a privileged window of opportunity after basic sensory functions and before higher cognitive functions.

Hensch - Brain plasticity

Based on brain plasticity, learning goes through successive sensitive periods focused on: senses during early childhood, language and motor functions during childhood, and later higher cognitive functions (maths, critical thinking, etc…) (credit : adapted from Hensch, 2005, Nature Reviews Neuroscience)

 

David Birdsong, one of the current leading researchers on effects of age of acquisition, identifies other sources as well. Firstly, the widespread decline of cognitive capabilities with age is a regular phenomenon that does not spare language learning. Secondly, interference of the native tongue probably increases with age – age being a proxy of usage of this language. Last, according to psycho-linguists, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device –giving access to Universal Grammar –, or any other language-specific acquisition mechanism, seems to disappear with age.

Socio-psychological reasons are completely different in nature but no less significant. Children do not feel embarrassed by novelty, since everything is new and consequently nothing is really abnormal. New sounds, even when very different from the mother tongue’s, are not frightening. Children utter them convincingly whereas adults might hesitate to stress them as strongly – they are so “weird”! More importantly still, children will not shy away from trying even if not completely sure, from having a go even if they are mistaken and must start again. Besides, other children will not be critical of the mistakes, at least not in the same proportions. As for adults, they might fear that their social status – which comes across so naturally in their mother tongue – could be degraded by an incomplete command of the other language. To make a long story short, social self-awareness sometimes plays against language learning by adults.

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Regardless of the quality of the learning environment – this topic will be addressed at a later stage –, children are more able to learn foreign languages  than adults  because of neurological and socio-psychological reasons. This is why one should make the most of sensitive period of childhood – it is so favourable !

Perceiving Sound Contrasts : Before 1 Year of Age, or Never

Babies are born universal listeners. In the first months of their lives, they can discriminate all the sounds produced by human beings. It is no small feat: you and I cannot. A typical Japanese adult is unable to hear the difference between an English /l/ and /r/. A typical English adult cannot detect the nuance between Mandarin /ɕ/ and /t͡ɕ/. The various /k/ and /q/ sounds in native American languages are not discriminated by non-Indian American adults. And Catalan mid-vowel contrasts (/e/, /ɛ/) are difficult to perceive even for adult Castilian-speaking Spaniards.

Babies keep listening. And while listening, their brains take statistics on the languages spoken in their environment. What happens towards the age of 1 is an incredible linguistic transformation. Babies get better at discriminating the sounds of their own language (native contrasts); but they completely and irremediably lose the ability to detect the sound differences present in other languages but irrelevant to theirs (non-native contrasts). The age of this transformation is known as the critical phonetic period. It is the clearest of all language critical periods.

Incredibly, before they reach that period, babies can be trained in other languages. In her memorable 2010 TED Talk, Patricia Kuhl describes how twelve sessions delivered by a Mandarin speaker to American babies had the same effect as ten and a half months of native Mandarin speaking on Taiwanese babies: at the end of the experiment the two groups were equally good at the perception of Mandarin contrasts.

Two more miracles are to be highlighted. First, the baby brain is a social one. If the baby is exposed to other languages’ sound contrasts by a recording, be it a full video or just an audio track, their performance is as bad as if there had been no training at all. But if the baby is trained by a living person, then the capability to perceive contrasts becomes as good as if the baby had been a native speaker. Sarah Roseberry, a  researcher in Patricia Kuhl’s lab, demonstrated in 2011 that the social impact is felt irrespective of the person’s physical presence or not : a Skype-like online, synchronous video interaction will have the same effect.

The second miracle is how adults could figure out whether babies perceive or not the sound contrasts. Babies, obviously, cannot speak, do not understand what the researchers are looking for and could not express consciously the results anyway. In a 2009 video, Derek Houston summarizes three common methodologies historically used to investigate infant speech discrimination skills :

–          High Amplitude Sucking (HAS) : sensors measure the amplitude and speed at which a baby sucks a pacifier. When different sounds are played (and perceived as different) the sucking response changes.

–          Conditional Head Turns (CHT) : the baby is taught to turn their head when they get a specific signal, in this case when they hear a sound contrast. If they do not turn their head it means they cannot hear a sound contrast.

–          Visual Habituation Methods (VHM) : when habituated to a given sound, babies’ looking time at a visual display tends to decrease. A sudden increase means babies have detected a novel sound.

Today scientists increasingly resort  to electrophysiological and neural imaging techniques, as mentioned in Kuhl’s video. This gives us a direct glimpse at what is happening inside the brain, and whether or not sound contrasts are perceived.

 

For more information :

Houston, D. M., Horn, D. L., Qi, R., Ting, J. Y. and Gao, S. (2007) : Assessing Speech Discrimination in Individual Infants. Infancy, 12: 119–145

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao. F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9096-9101