Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

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Physiological studies have found that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. The brains of bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers, and these differences offer several mental benefits.

Below are seven cognitive advantages to learning a foreign language. Many of these attributes are only apparent in people who speak multiple languages regularly – if you haven’t spoken a foreign tongue since your A levels, your brain might not be reaping these bilingual benefits. However, people who begin language study in their adult lives can still achieve the same levels of fluency as a young learner, and still reap the same mental benefits, too.

You become smarter

Speaking a foreign language improves the functionality of your brain by challenging it to recognise, negotiate meaning, and communicate in different language systems. This skill boosts your ability to negotiate meaning in other problem-solving tasks as well.

Students who study foreign languages tend to score better on standardised tests than their monolingual peers, particularly in the categories of maths, reading, and vocabulary.

Multitasking comes more naturally.

A Pennsylvania State University study found bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals when working on multiple projects simultaneously. It’s more natural for the bilingual brain to quickly edit out information that’s irrelevant and hone in on what’s important.

Researchers traced the source of these enhanced task-switching skills to the way bilinguals mentally juggle both languages. The inner negotiation that occurs any time they speak acts as a “mental gymnasium,” training the brain to perceive and evaluate priorities quickly.

Your memory improves

Educators often liken the brain to a muscle, because it functions better with exercise. Learning a language involves memorizing rules and vocabulary, which helps strengthen that mental “muscle.” This exercise improves overall memory, which means that multiple language speakers are better at remembering lists or sequences. Studies show that bilinguals are better at retaining shopping lists, names, and directions.

You become more perceptive

A study from Spain’s University of Pompeu Fabra revealed that multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings. They are more adept at focusing on relevant information and editing out the irrelevant. They’re also better at spotting misleading information.

Your decision-making skills improve

According to a study from the University of Chicago, bilinguals tend to make more rational decisions. Any language contains nuance and subtle implications in its vocabulary, and these biases can subconsciously influence your judgment. Bilinguals are more confident with their choices after thinking it over in the second language and seeing whether their initial conclusions still stand up.

Your brain actually gets bigger.

A 2014 study titled, “Age of language learning shapes brain structure” found the cortical thickness — which is generally associated with higher intelligence — of the bilingual brain is only altered when language learning happens later in life, after developing proficiency in their first language.

The later a second language is acquired, the greater the effect on brain structure increase, the study found. Also, bilingual speakers who use both languages often may have more grey matter in the brain regions responsible for attention, inhibition, and short-term memory, according to recent research from the Georgetown University Medical Center.

By By Anne Merritt | Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer currently based in South Korea. She writes at http://annemerritt.com/

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