Schreiber Science: Learning a foreign language can benefit you in more ways than one

Sydney Kass, Staff Writer

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We’ve all heard about the countless advantages of learning another language, such as having the ability to communicate with diverse populations, eavesdropping, doing business, and being a citizen of the world, among other reasons. However, the benefits do not end there: learning a new language can benefit brain function and even changes the way in which people think.

Many scientific studies have shown that learning another language affects the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing information.  This includes the ability to reason and to recall memory.  Being a lifelong bilingual, or a speaker of two languages, has the potential to make the mind more resilient.  Studies conducted by Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto found that compared to monolinguals, bilinguals tend to be diagnosed with dementia an average 4.5 years later and were found to have white matter in their brains which better connect different regions.  Although Bialystok cautions that her theory has yet to be confirmed, being linguistically gifted might preserve and strengthen that which makes you, you.

Additionally, language can affect which characteristics your brain subconsciously attributes to objects.  The University of Minnesota found that Spanish and French speakers of languages tend to describe objects using either stereotypically feminine or masculine traits, depending on the gender that the object takes in their native language.  For example, in Spanish and French the word for “table” is feminine, and when asked to characterize the object, French and Spanish speakers might describe tables as “beautiful” or “pretty” rather than “strong” or “handsome.”

Language can also serve as a built-in compass, aiding in navigation and the ability to orient oneself.  People who speak languages without words for relative space (like “left” and “right”) have a better sense of direction than speakers of languages that don’t.  Take the Guugu Yimithirr and the Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, whose language instead use “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” when referencing relative space.  This means that speakers of these languages have no sense of “left” and “right” and only navigate in absolute terms.  In studies, these peoples have demonstrated a keen sense of direction in the midst of unfamiliar places.

The way we perceive and describe the world around us also is strongly affected by the languages we speak and think in.  Take Greek and Russian, two languages that have different boundaries of color than English.  The languages have two different words for the color blue –dark and light. This means that when Greek and Russian speakers reference this color, they need to delineate between the two; there is no way to qualify the color of a blue object without making this difference. However, in English, there is one word for blue, which eliminates the need to recognize the specifics of the color spectrum.  As a result, studies suggest that Greek and Russian speakers can distinguish shades of color better and faster than English speakers. Through these factors, language affects our perceptions of the world just as it gives us our ability to communicate making it an essential tool for everyday function.

We really don’t give language enough credit.  Most only consider its influence at the surface, but language is more than a system of sound: it influences our health, the way we think, and how we perceive the world around us — in short, how we live.