Learning a new language is a great way to earn a promotion at work, prepare for extended travel abroad or study at a foreign university. But did you know that it can actually improve your cognitive skills too? That’s because the brain is a muscle and when you teach it new tricks it strengthens those areas that are important for language learners, including memory, problem solving and communicative ability.
Having to remember so many new words is like weight training for your mind– and just like at the gym, the more you do it, the stronger you become. As you progress in your study, you’ll be more adept at processing new information and faster when it comes to accessing language that you have already learned. Moreover, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in understanding grammar and unpacking foreign phrasing, which sharpens analytical skills.
Learning a foreign tongue also gives you a renewed perspective on your own language and culture and can heighten your communicative ability as you become used to engaging with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, it helps to ward off dementia because you must work to create new neural pathways, which is the opposite of allowing the brain to atrophy.
Did you know there are different areas of memory? We use working memory to process information in the here and now and long-term memory to store information that we need to hold on to. Learning a new language helps you get better at both remembering things temporarily and transferring them to long-term storage.
Have you ever been stuck looking for a word you know but are unable to come up with in the moment? Language learning improves recall abilities as your brain becomes skilled at adding new information and then retrieving it. What’s even better, your memory improves regardless of the language that you’re using. This means you’ll have an easier time memorising lists in English and learning technical and subject specific terminology.
TOP TIP: Individuals who employ strategies, such as mnemonic devices, see even greater improvements because their brains get used to using similar sounding words and images to embed new information in memory, regardless of topic.
Human beings are often required to juggle multiple pieces of information in order to complete complex tasks. But research has shown that language learners can actually hold more information in working memory — including longer strings of sounds and images that take longer to dissipate– in addition to handling more moving parts. That’s because recognizing foreign terms and applying knowledge of grammar in order to understand nuanced meaning requires a bit of mental gymnastics. You’re engaged in general comprehension tasks too, such as accessing gist, picking up on specific details, and making inferences and predictions. In listening, you’re not only tasked with processing what you’ve heard but coming up with an appropriate response as well! All of this happens instantaneously and the more you do it, the more skilled you become at managing and directing your attention.
TOP TIP: Did you know good language learners are also more efficient at breaking larger tasks down into individual steps? This self-efficacious approach can transfer over to help you complete projects at work or school and means you’re less likely to get overwhelmed when confronted with challenges.
Problem solving skills
A foreign language is like a puzzle, as you learn more words and constructions you gradually begin to piece together the meaning of sentences and spoken utterances. However, until you learn the basics, there is definitely some guesswork involved — particularly when it comes to vocabulary and grammar.
Figuring out what new language means and how it works engages the same problem solving and analytical skills you use when you encounter any unknown. You have to think about a term’s definition based on the words around it, which part of speech it might be in a particular sentence and how it might be said or written. It takes exposure to repeat examples of grammar in order to deduce rules and figure out exceptions. All of this lexical navigation makes you faster and more adept at handling new information, in English or in a foreign tongue.
TOP TIP: One of the best ways to learn vocabulary is guessing from context because that extra amount of cognitive energy you spend trying to understand a term will make it easier for you to remember the word later on.
When you have to engage in conversation with a limited vocabulary, you are forced to find new ways of expressing yourself, particularly if you don’t have a dictionary handy. This requires inventing roundabout ways of saying something, which boosts your creativity in the same way as playing a game of charades does. Learning a foreign tongue also allows you to break out of ingrained ways of thinking as you begin to add new concepts to your knowledge base and discover a different culture. Research shows that bilingual children out-perform their monolingual peers on every measure when it comes to thinking outside of the box. This is because they have access to two language and thought systems to work with.
Learning a new language makes you more aware of your own language and can get you thinking about which words you favor and how you might express a given idea in a different way. You may pay special attention to the meaning of English idioms and other figurative language that you’ve never considered before. Encounters with native speakers of your new language also help you to tune into non-verbal communication, as you use any and all clues to understand what someone is saying.
Maintaining a healthy brain
Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia in which plaques form in the brain blocking neural pathways and causing a breakdown in cognitive and language ability. It’s been shown that individuals who speak a second language can hold off the disease for longer as they have an easier time inventing linguistic work-arounds when a plaque is in the way.
Plus, adding brain cells in the form of new language strengthens existing neural connections, which helps to prevent plaques from forming in the first place. That’s why it’s important to continue actively studying your language and to use a dynamic course like Language Infusion that engages all of your senses. Learning a foreign language provides the same kind of mental exercise you might get from a cross-word puzzle, only better, because you are not just referencing what you already know but discovering new things every day!
Do you have any cognitive benefits of learning a language to contribute? Please share them in the comments!