Learning new languages is popularly recognized as a unique skill, with certain lucky people being able to learn new languages with a minimal amount of effort, just walking around and picking up little bits till they can make sentences. This helps people navigate new places, cultures and experiences, and connect to native speakers in ways that other people can not.
But apart from being able to learn for its sake, are there any benefits to the brain or any drawbacks?
So in the negative column, lets put these two. In an article by Miguel Angel Munoz, The British Council cited two studies which indicated that for bilingual people their vocabularies in each individual language tend to be smaller than that of people who only speak one language fluently Furthermore, they posited that bilingual people also experience more moments when they can’t find the exact word they want to describe something, than their monolingual peers.
On the positive side, there are a large number of benefits. but we can divide them into 3 main areas Health, Decision Making and Language Appreciation, and Brain Power (thanks to the writers at this site for parsing through the research and writing a great article, which i am about to borrow quite liberally from).
Delayed Onset Of Dementia
Speaking more than one language provides constant exercise for your brain, and keeping your brain active is one way in which to delay the onset of dementia.
As crazy as it may sound, learning a foreign language can actually increase the size of your brain. A group of Swedish scientists did an MRI study which showed that certain parts of the brain were bigger in people who had learnt a foreign language.
Decision Making and Language Appreciation
Better Decision-Making Skills
Studies from the University of Chicago have shown that people who speak another language are better able to pick up nuances and subtleties in any given situation, which can lead to more rational decision-making in many areas of life. Monolingual people, on the other hand, tend to base their decisions more on emotions.
Improved First Language
By learning another language, your mother tongue can improve as a result. As you learn a second language, your knowledge of grammar improves. This linguistic awareness then transfers back to your first language.
Learning a foreign language helps improve memory. A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology aimed to find out what effect learning a foreign language had on a child’s memory.
This study found that bilingual children performed much better than monolingual children on tasks using their working memory. (Working memory deals with the storage and processing of information over a short period of time.) The conclusion of the study was that knowledge of more than one language had contributed to their better working memory.
Increased Attention Span
Speaking a second language helps you focus, and deal with distractions appropriately, according to a study in the journal of Brain and Language.
A bilingual person is accustomed to switching between different languages, deciding which is the appropriate language to use in a given situation (and which language should be avoided). This gives the brain plenty of practice in focusing and filtering information.
Improved Ability To Multitask
Related to your attention span is your ability to multi-task. A study by the NIH discovered that because bilinguals have better working memories, can focus their attention, and can disregard distractions, they are able to switch between tasks quickly and easily (just as they are able to switch between languages).
Increased Perceptual Sensitivity
The benefits of multiple languages can start as early as before a baby is able to speak. A psychologist from the University of British Columbia found that babies who are raised in bilingual households are able to distinguish different languages when they are spoken, even if they are not familiar with those languages.
What this perceptual sensitivity could mean, is that babies raised with two languages will find it easier to learn other languages later in life, as a result of the ability to easily distinguish between different sounds.
Better Cognitive Abilities
Bilingual people have also been shown to have better cognitive abilities than monolinguals. Research from the University of Edinburgh suggests that specifically, bilingual people score better on tests of reading, verbal fluency and intelligence, all of which undoubtedly help bilinguals be better students.
Interestingly, this is regardless of what age the person learns the foreign language, so even a person who learns a foreign language as an adult will benefit from these improved skills.
In conclusion, it seems to be quite beneficial for people to learn multiple languages, the improvements in brain power and potential health benefits, far outweigh any complaints about the difficulties of learning new languages, especially as one gets older. So, I am about to pick a new language to work on, what about you?