Research studies have shown that learning two or more languages can improve your memory later in life. Learning another language and being able to interchange between the two of them exercises your mind, making your brain more flexible, which helps to protect your memory.
Cognitive research has shown that learning more languages can actually delay the onset of dementia by a number of years. By exercising your mind and by challenging your brain, you build up a reserve of extra brain power that helps to combat memory loss. Normally, average people may begin to suffer from symptoms of dementia in their mid-seventies but bilingual people are able to stave off the symptoms until their eighties.
Being bilingual is said to boost a part of the frontal lobe of the brain known as the ‘executive control system’ in that it controls language, learning, reasoning and memory. This area becomes stronger as you learn a language, particularly from a young age, but there are still benefits to learning languages later in life as it keeps your brain active and resistant to damage. Symptoms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s can be delayed for up to five years.
If being bilingual has significant health benefits, then multilingual speakers are in an even better position. Individuals with the ability to speak three languages are three times less like to develop memory problems compared with bilingual people. Speakers of over four languages are five times less likely to suffer from memory issues. Researchers believe that increased fluency levels in these languages is more effective at boosting memory but it´s not essential; it´s purely the extra usage and stimulation of the brain when learning languages that seems to act as a protective element against cognitive problems.
It has long been debated as to whether language acquisition is innate (something we are born with) or learned. Are we all born with the genetic capability of speaking our own language? Do we recognise speech patterns immediately? Is it possible to begin structuring language compositions in our brains from such an early age? How can we separate language from other external audio stimuli when we are babies? Do we tune into the most commonly spoken words around us and gradually learn them subconsciously? There are many questions on this subject matter with the aim of discovering whether language is an innate or learned skill. The answer is it that it’s actually a bit of both.
Our brains have the innate ability to comprehend, interpret and to produce language. Several studies have shown that infants, from birth until six months old, can distinguish between the phonetics of all languages. They hone in on the most commonly spoken words and sounds used by others around them, resulting in them being able to choose their native language. After six months old, however, they can only detect the phonetics related to their chosen language. Young children of just a few years old have a grasp of the grammatical rules of language without having been taught them. A child progresses though different stages of learning their native language until, usually when they reach puberty, they are able to learn a foreign language. The ability to learn a language is innate, but actually speaking a specific language is learned. These specific languages are learned from the environment and from experience.
For example, you have the innate ability to learn German, but that doesn´t automatically mean that you can speak German. To do that, you would need to actively learn the German language. So now that you know you have a natural disposition to learn languages, book some German lessons in London or whichever city is nearest to you and put your linguistic skills to the test.
Rob and Julie lived in Spain with their two kids, Becky and Sam. They´d emigrated from the UK when Sam was just 18 months old and Becky was born in Spain three years later. Julie, a qualified teacher, was lucky enough to get a position in a local school teaching English to Spanish children, while Rob was a plumber by trade and set up his own plumbing firm. For a while, they did very well and settled into the Spanish lifestyle with ease. But after the recession hit Spain, work was harder to come by for Rob as he had to compete for business against his Spanish competitors.
After a while, things took a turn for the worse financially and the family had to consider their options. Julie´s job at the school was still secure and the kids, who were now much older, were both doing very well in school. So Rob made the heart wrenching decision to go back to the UK to work for a while until things got better, leaving Julie and the kids in Spain.
Once he´d got on his feet back in the UK, one of the things Rob did to try to bridge the gap was to learn Spanish. Julie had already picked up quite a lot of the language at the school, and the kids both spoke it fluently. Already feeling too far apart from them, he thought that he could at least try to keep up with his lessons so that he didn´t drift further away from them in that aspect. He opted for some group Spanish classes in Bristol so that he could practise his conversational skills with like-minded people.
Whilst being apart was hard, they all had to make the best of a bad situation. In Spain, Julie and the kids carried on as normal and looked forward to Rob´s visits. In the UK, Rob worked as much as he could and squirrelled his earnings away to build a pot back up for them to use in Spain. His lessons were something to look forward to each week and each one was a step closer to him returning back to Spain and being reunited with his family for good.
Rosa was from southern Spain and, having spent a year in England in her twenties, spoke fluent English. At home, that opened up more opportunities for her as a large number of companies on the coast were British run. She´d joined one such company and had enjoyed working there for the next nine years. It was a large travel company with a mixed nationality staff including British, Spanish, German, Danish, Russian, Swedish, Finnish and French. Rosa loved working with so many different nationalities and enjoyed the travel opportunities that it opened up.
Unfortunately, like many other companies during the recession, this travel firm had gone into liquidation and Rosa found herself out of work. With so many people facing unemployment in Spain and with no companies hiring new staff, Rosa had decided to travel to Germany, like many of her Spanish friends, on a 3 month intensive language course with the intended outcome of finding a job there at the end of it. But, as no work was forthcoming, and with no work available back home, Rosa had to look carefully at what options were open to her.
She´d stayed in touch with her ex colleagues and many of them had returned to the UK, opting to work for the sister company of the one they had all worked for in Spain. The perfect job was available for her there, to deal with their Spanish clients on a daily basis, so Rosa flew to the UK to begin her new job. But she didn´t want to give up on her idea of working in Germany one day either, so looked to find some German courses that would enable her to keep up her new linguistic skills. She found the ideal course which enabled her to have lessons near her workplace and was taught by a native German speaking teacher. The teacher quickly assessed Rosa´s level in the German language and structured the lessons to continue from that point. Rosa´s confidence grew not only in her ability to speak the German language, but in the fact that there would now be so many more possibilities open to her in the future, and she looked forward to whatever they might be!
It’s no secret that men and women are different from each other in just about every way. Their physical appearance, their emotional attitudes, their interests, their abilities…they might as well be from different planets! Many studies have been conducted over the years to see if men´s and women’s brains are wired differently making one sex excel in one field while the other sex excels in another. One such type of theory and related studies considers the difference in linguistic abilities between men and women; does one have the ability to learn languages more easily than the other?
The answer is yes, women are more likely to succeed in learning a new language and at a faster rate than men. This is because they process the information in both sides of their brain and also listen using both the right and left hemispheres which enables them to multitask while doing so. Men, on the other hand, use the left hemisphere only of their brain when listening and also when learning a new language. Men process male and female voices differently to each other which can lessen the degree of ease for learning languages. In the parts of the brains used to process languages, women´s brains have been found to have a larger proportion of volume than men, resulting in women having a natural advantage over men in the ability to learn and process languages. Whilst these findings don´t affect everyone, they do apply to the average population and go a long way in explaining why there seem to be more females in language related professions, such as interpreters, over their male counterparts.
After getting married, Steffi and Simon decided to move from the UK to Steffi’s home town in Germany. They wanted to start a family there and to raise their children near her relatives. For Simon, who was originally born in Venezuela, this meant the unnerving challenge of taking on a new language as German immigration and residency regulations state that it is compulsory for any non-EU citizen who wishes to reside in Germany to provide proof of a basic knowledge of the language when applying for the visa. A daunting prospect at 34 years old, the trepidation of learning German was mingled with his excitement at starting a new life with his bride in a new country. After a lot of thought, he decided to beat his nerves and get a head start with some German classes in Edinburgh where they lived.
He opted for the individual classes rather than the group lessons as he felt that one-to-one training would be more intense and beneficial for him. Besides, he had Steffi to practise with when he needed to do his homework! His teacher was a native German and listening to their accent helped him to pronounce the words in the correct dialect and enabled him to tune in to the German accent fairly easily when practising his verbal lessons. As he lived so near to the learning centre, Simon was also lucky enough to benefit from having his German classes at home which not only saved time and travelling expenses but also removed some of the nervousness from being back in an educational environment. It wasn’t long before he’d picked up the basics of the language and felt calmer and more confident at the prospect of moving abroad.
Now, three years later and still living in Germany, there are no longer any awkward silences or embarrassing moments when Simon tries to communicate with Steffi’s family. They happily converse with him and teach him new phrases as the situations arise. Having studied the German language full-time when he first relocated, Simon now takes part-time courses which help to build his vocabulary as well as his confidence. His written skills have improved no end and he even writes his Facebook messages in his native language of Spanish, in English and now in German to make sure that he doesn’t miss any of his friends out (and to show off a bit, naturally!). With a full-time job as a chef in a local bar, close friends and family, and a lovely baby daughter, it just goes to show that Simon’s hard work and determination at learning a new language was worth it as he now enjoys a very happy and fulfilling life in Germany.
The BBC have questioned how internet users are changing the English language. Articles about the internet changing the way we use language are a dime a dozen but this article includes some interesting facts. For instance ‘people who speak English as a second language already outnumber native speakers.’ Using this information we can question what effect these many variations of the English language will have upon native English speakers.
“The internet enfranchises people who are not native speakers to use English in significant and meaningful ways,” says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in Washington DC.
Users of Facebook already socialise in a number of different “Englishes” including Indian English, or Hinglish, Spanglish (Spanish English) and Konglish (Korean English). While these variations have long existed within individual cultures, they’re now expanding and comingling online.
All of these different versions of English come together within the melting pot of the internet and this could lead to a universal English pidgin.
“Most people actually speak multiple languages – it’s less common to only speak one,” says Mr Munro. “English has taken its place as the world’s lingua franca, but it’s not pushing out other languages.”
Instead, other languages are pushing their way into English, and in the process creating something new.
I wear glasses all the time, but they serve no purpose other than to correct my extreme short-sightedness.
For the money they cost, surely glasses could do more? Well, a British inventor has created a pair of specs that can do a rough translation during a conversation. Will Powell was inspired by Google’s Project Glass, which aims to create augmented reality glasses, and is still in development. At one point Google’s glasses were predicted to be on sale by the end of the year, but this now looks unlikely.
Take a look at the video of Will Powell’s glasses to see how they work.
This interesting infographic from Kaplan International looks at how non-native English speakers learn the language.
One of the things that grabs me from the infographic is the stat that 82% of people said that TV shows helped them learn English (with a focus on American sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother). This stat is reflected in anecdotal evidence from friends who have learned English – they all say they picked up a lot from watching TV!
It’s perhaps a little harder to find shows in your target language, but it seems like it’s worth the effort. If you enjoy the show you seem to get more language benefits from it!
Following last week’s news of a decline in the number of students studying some languages at A-Level, the Telegraph have put together a list of their top 10 “best languages to study” for graduate jobs.
The full list:
The list is somewhat surprising, given that students are choosing not to study German, French and Spanish in favour of Japanese and Mandarin.
The survey asked UK firm managers what languages are useful for their business. Given that Germany’s the only country defying the depression in the eurozone, I’m not surprised it tops the list.
What do you think is the “best” language to study?