The benefits of language learning

(Courtesy of Sydney Ewert)

Growing up in a monolingual family within a monolingual community, I wasn’t offered many opportunities to learn another language. My school curriculum required French, however, these classes mainly consisted of colouring — in upper years, class outcomes were the same for grades 10 to 12. 

Despite my monolingual upbringing, many people across the globe speak more than one language. The Washington Post explains that at least half of the global population speaks more than one language.

While Mandarin and Spanish are the most commonly spoken languages, English is the most common second-language world wide. English is now so globalized that many people either learn it growing up or in their school curriculum. While at least half of the world speaks two languages, only 13 per cent speak three languages. 

I started studying languages seriously after high school and spending some time abroad. I am lucky to have made great friends that I can practice my French with. As someone who enjoys language learning, I’d like to explore its benefits and exactly how someone can begin to learn a new one. 

Firstly, there are many cognitive benefits that language learning provides.

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor in the psychology and neuroscience department, explains that a bilingual brain has a stronger attention system than a monolingual brain. 

“Bilingual language use requires the constant involvement of attention systems because, counterintuitively, both languages are always ‘active’ creating constant potential interference. Yet bilinguals rarely make such errors. The reason is likely because language selection is managed by these general attention systems and in doing so, these attention systems become more robust,” Bialystok explains. 

Thus, the bilingual brain is also more efficient in switching from task to task. 

“The general category of cognitive task that bilinguals are better at than monolinguals is the set of tasks that require the individual to avoid interference. These effects are small and very difficult to detect in young adults for whom these tasks are easy, but the bilingualism effect is clearer in children and older adults when these tasks are more difficult,” continues Bialystok.

In addition to an increased attention span and ability to rapidly switch tasks, studies show that learning a second language can actually delay the onset of dementia. This may be due to an increased use of engaged activity in the brain.

“Lifelong bilingualism has been shown to contribute to ‘cognitive reserve,’ an accumulation of resilience that allows cognitive function to be maintained even if there is disease or neuropathology. Therefore, bilinguals show symptoms of dementia at an older age than monolinguals and in fact have more severe disease pathology when they are diagnosed despite clinical behavioural symptoms being comparable,” says Bialystok. 

“Bilinguals show symptoms of dementia at an older age than monolinguals and in fact have more severe disease pathology when they are diagnosed despite clinical behavioural symptoms being comparable.”

“The delay in symptom onset is important because it creates time when individuals can live independently with normal cognitive function despite accumulating disease pathology.”

Bialystok also explains that while it is always possible to learn a second language, it becomes harder with age. 

According to the World Literacy Foundation, learning a new language at a young age is easier because, for young children, “this is when their brains begin to develop. The early years are a vital period when cognitive skills and connections are formed which learning a second language can enhance.”

As a result, several skills are improved, including: level of perception and inquisitiveness (which helps the speed of learning), creativity, and critical thinking.

However, despite common belief, Bialystok explains that language learning becoming harder with age is not because there is a critical period for it.

“There are many possible reasons for this: we have less time as adults, we expect higher proficiency to achieve our goals, we are more stuck in our first language habits, and we don’t have the rich opportunities for immersion that children do,” explains Bialystok.

In other words, children have certain environmental advantages. They learn mainly through immersion and as a result, it is more natural so they absorb what they are learning without any preexisting habits or responsibilities interfering with that absorption. 

What’s more is that children have less inhibitions, meaning they are comfortable making mistakes and errors. Adults, on the other hand, usually see this as an obstacle and it can contribute to some anxiety when trying to practice a new language outloud. 

This is often exacerbated by language shaming — a term used to describe the deriding, disparaging, and discouraging ways someone is mocked for trying to speak another language. The irony being that someone who, for example, is speaking broken English just means that they are fluent in another language — which is generally a testament to their intelligence. Children just simply aren’t judged the way adults are, so to speak.

“Yet, despite being very large, the effect of age on language learning outcomes is smaller than the effect of education: people with more education are more successful second language learners than people with less education at any age,” says Bialystok.

“Different cognitive linguistics-focused studies illustrate that bilingual and plurilingual people have better memory skills, attention span, and multitasking skills.”

While learning another dialect can provide a plethora of benefits, it must be maintained to avoid language attrition. Language attrition is when a language you used to speak or practice frequently becomes “forgotten.” You might forget simple words or phrases that used to come easily to you. 

“Use it, or lose it” is a phrase often used to describe this occurrence. However, it is also found that language attrition does not affect everyone in the same way, if at all. 

“Different cognitive linguistics-focused studies illustrate that bilingual and plurilingual people have better memory skills, attention span, and multitasking skills,” says Professor Maria João Dodman, Professor Olga Makinina, and Professor Antonella Valeo, all from York’s Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics. They collectively agree that “language learning is food for the brain.”

While there are many cognitive benefits to learning a new vernacular, there are also many social benefits.

Valeo, Makinina, and Dodman state: “From the most practical skills where we can learn how to communicate with others, appreciate the many cultures of our neighbours and friends in our diverse multicultural city, to more complex skills that include intercultural understanding, tolerance, empathy, and the enhancement of our overall ability to understand the world and become global citizens.”

Archi Desai, an incoming York student in digital and contact marketing, feels that knowing a second language is an “icebreaker.”

Multilingualism can open doors to new relationships and opportunities as well. It allows communication between different groups of people and simultaneously brings those groups together. 

“I believe that the more languages a person knows, the more one can communicate with others,” says Chanmeet Kaur, a future York post-graduate accounting student from New Delhi, India. “It not only breaks the cultural barriers but also helps one to understand the other individual better as we become a person with wider perspectives.”

While languages allow us to connect better with others, learning them can also encourage self-discovery.

“Learning a language allows us to examine who we are, how we see the world around us, and how we relate to it. Even when we think we’ve learned and ‘forgotten’ languages, the connections and insights have not been lost,” Valeo, Makinina, and Dodman explain. 

They recount memorable experiences language learning has offered them. For example, Makinina explains how a friend of hers discovered a photo of their great-grandfather wearing a peculiar uniform. They later learned that they had immigrated from Russia to North America in the early 1900’s. This led them to start learning Russian and eventually discovering distant cousins in St. Petersburg. 

One of my favourite memories is using my French to assist customers. I once had a couple from Bordeaux come to my workplace. I was the only one employed who could even slightly speak French. I was surprised to find myself able to hold a conversation for 10 minutes and eventually sell them a product.

It is moments like this that make me feel proud to have taken it upon myself to learn another dialect. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction from being able to use my second language. 

“Many learners thrive in environments such as the one we have in Toronto, where you can learn in class and practice in the many co- and extracurricular events on campus and in the community.”

While there are many different language learning methods, Valeo, Makinina, and Dodman explain that there is no “right” way. The language learning process is different for everyone. However, there are a few “tenets” that seem to aid in the process:

  • Find a reason to learn and build on that;
  • Seek out opportunities to use the language whether in speaking, reading, listening, or writing;
  • Make it meaningful to you (now and in the future).

“Many learners thrive in environments such as the one we have in Toronto, where you can learn in class and practice in the many co- and extracurricular events on campus and in the community,” they add. Toronto is a bustling multicultural city with many opportunities for language learners.

When you take a class (online or in-person), you have the opportunity to meet like-minded people with the same interests as you. Friends or family that either know or are learning the same target tongue as you can help you implement practice into your daily life. For example, you can try cooking together in your target language, or find a good movie to enjoy together.

Rucha Dave, an incoming York student in biomedical sciences, can speak English, Hindi, and Gurati, and is currently learning French and Korean. 

“Completely immerse yourself in that language everyday. Be it listening to songs in that target language, podcasts, news, movies, and whatever else it is that you love. This will help to make it fun and help to be persistent,” says Dave.

The task can seem daunting at first but it can’t be sugar coated either — language learning requires time and commitment. While there is grammar and vocabulary that must be learned, there is also slang and different dialects depending on where the language is being spoken. 

Québec French versus France French is perfect for demonstration. For example, the word used for peanut in Québec is arachide whereas in France it is cacahuète. You can find many other differences in other languages as well, including: Spaniard Spanish versus Latin American Spanish; Iranian Persian versus Afghanistan Persian; even Canadian English versus UK English; and Brazilian Portuguese versus Portugal Portuguese, as well as the many other countries that Portuguese is spoken in.

As mentioned earlier, language attrition (losing a language) is possible when it is not practiced regularly. Just as much as the journey to attaining a language, losing a language may also cause frustration and lack of motivation. However, luckily, we live in a time where the internet offers us a plethora of resources to begin and aid that journey.

York offers students additional resources to improve their language skills. For example, you can get support from the Multimedia Language Centre for French and other languages. There is also the Virtual Café at the ESL Open Learning Centre to help spark conversation with others hoping to improve their English skills. In addition, York students have access to a free online movie platform called Kanopy, where you can find a variety of films offered in different languages. 

As you learn a dialect, you can get a certification as you go to give you more credentials for your resumé or maybe to find international experience. The department of languages, literature & linguistics offers several certificates York students can take advantage of, including TESOL and other language proficiency certificates.

As someone who has previously taken the DELF A2 and B1 exams and is currently studying for the DELF B2 (they’re French proficiency tests, by the way), I would highly recommend it. Having these credentials opens doors as young professionals and helps you discover opportunities you might not have recognized before.

While there are many benefits to learning another dialect, the language journeys we may be continuing or starting offer us a new whimsical and exciting view on ourselves and our surrounding society. 

I strongly encourage you to start your language learning journey and enjoy the benefits it provides. You might even make a friend or two out of it.

About the Author

By Sydney Ewert

Former Editor

Sydney is in her second year at York University studying dance. She loves to travel and explore new places. She also has a part-time job that she loves! When Sydney is not editing, working, or studying for her classes, she is likely going for walks or learning new recipes.

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