What Are The Benefits Of Learning A Second Language?
Learning a second language is a highly rewarding exercise. Not only is it a valuable skill in itself, it also offers several other benefits. Bilingualism (knowing and using more than one language) can broaden your career options, allow you to travel to new countries, and meet new people.
Learning a second language doesn’t just offer social benefits; it also offers many biological advantages thanks to its effects on the brain. Learning a language strengthens your brain, boosts your creativity, enhances problem-solving skills and increases your attention span.
1. Bilingual children develop faster
The understanding of how bilingualism affects children has changed significantly over the years. Back in the 1920s, a series of flawed studies on bilingual refugee children led to widespread theories that learning multiple languages detracted from cognitive development; however, these studies failed to take into account the disruption and trauma these children had suffered.
The modern understanding is the exact opposite: learning a second language is widely believed to have several positive effects on the cognitive development of children. For example, one study found that 6-month-old children exposed to two languages from birth had much faster image recognition abilities than monolingual babies of the same age.
Other research suggests that bilingual children have much better working memory function than monolingual children. This ‘bilingual advantage’ is thought to derive from the fact that language use exercises many different parts of the brain. Learning a second language stimulates these areas to develop faster and helps to improve memory and other cognitive abilities.
Many of these studies have focused on children who already live in homes where more than one language is spoken. However, learning a second language can have benefits even for children in monolingual homes and it’s definitely worth considering enrolling your child in language courses to help them develop.
2. Language learning stimulates adult brains
Adults can also experience the benefits of bilingualism. Thinking in 2 or more languages requires a lot of heavy lifting from your brain.
In particular, learning a second language can help to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, bilateral supramarginal gyri, and anterior cingulate. These areas experience a significant increase in volume of gray matter — important brain tissue that plays a key role in transmitting information through your brain.
Denser gray matter means an increase in brain cells, contributing to more efficient transmission and better overall brain network function.
3. Bilingualism slows brain decline as you age
There’s increasing evidence that learning a second language can help to slow the effects of aging on the brain.
As well as stimulating gray matter growth, language learning can also help to promote the integrity of white matter, another brain tissue that degrades with age. Because of this, language learning may be able to slow down cognitive decline in older adults as it essentially acts as a whole-brain workout.
Just as physical exercise can help keep your body in good shape as you get older, mental exercise via language learning thus helps to keep your mind and brain in good shape too.
One example is that learning a second language has been shown to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in aging adults. A study of 853 participants found that bilingual people began to develop Alzheimer’s an average of 4.5 years later than monolingual participants.
4. Learning another language helps with multitasking
Another area that language learning can help with is multitasking skills. Since a bilingual mind must constantly switch between two different languages for different contexts; it’s theorized that the brain forms new neural connections in response.
In turn, a second language makes it easier to switch between multiple tasks in other contexts. This is backed up by research that shows bilingual children consistently perform better on exercises involving switching between tasks than monolingual children.
5. Executive function is boosted by language learning
Executive function refers to skills such as self-control, attention management, and flexible thinking — all of which are crucial for completing tasks in daily life. Several studies suggest that learning a second language improves these executive function skills
Bilingual individuals have to constantly manage two or more languages to ensure that they use the right words and phrases in the right language for the situation, not slip between the two.
This largely happens subconsciously, using various parts of the brain which are also responsible for executive function. This can lead to improvements in attention span, the ability to ignore distractions, alertness, listening skills, and mental flexibility.
The executive function benefits of learning a second language have been shown in various studies; for example, research from 2012 found that children enrolled in second language classes for three months outperformed monolingual children in several areas of executive function.
6. Language learners have more career opportunities
Outside of the biological and cognitive benefits, learning a second language also has many social and personal benefits. One of the biggest is that additional language skills can open up a variety of career opportunities.
Many companies are now global in nature, which makes the ability to liaise and communicate with multiple national bases highly desirable. A second language can therefore open up opportunities in companies with a global workforce, giving you all manner of new job options.
Two of the best languages for this are Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, which sit alongside English in the top three most spoken languages in the world. Learning either of these as a second language can massively boost your career prospects and open up new job opportunities.
Furthermore, knowing a second language makes for an impressive addition to your resume even if the post you’re applying for doesn’t specifically require it. Being bilingual shows employers that you have a varied skill set and a proven ability to learn new skills, which can give you a competitive edge over other applicants.
7. Bilinguals can earn better salaries
Knowing a second language can make you more useful to an employer, even if your role doesn’t strictly require it. This means you have an extra bargaining chip at the table when it comes to negotiating a salary. That’s because your second language provides added value to your employer, which is why you might be able to secure a better salary.
8. Higher job security
It’s harder to replace people who speak multiple languages than it is to replace someone who only knows one language. This means you’re likely to enjoy an extra level of job security if you’re able to speak a second language.
9. Travel freedom
The language barrier is often one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when traveling. This means there will be more places you can travel to without worrying about not being able to communicate with people.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to visit Japan, then learning Japanese means your visit will go much more smoothly thanks to being able to communicate more effectively with locals in their native language. It also allows you to get a more authentic experience of the culture, since you’ll be able to understand far more of what you see and hear there.
10. Work freedom
Beyond tourism, learning a second language also gives you more freedom in where you choose to live and work.
A bilingual person can relocate to countries that speak that language much more easily than a monolingual person would be able to. For example, many young people use a second language to temporarily move to a new country and teach English there to experience new cultures.
11. Meeting new people
Perhaps the simplest benefit of language learning is that you’ll be able to communicate with more people. This has advantages for both your personal and professional life.
Being able to communicate with more people or even act as a translator can vastly improve your networking potential and advance your career, while the ability to understand more of the people you meet when traveling can help you to form new and unexpected friendships.
12. Broaden cultural horizons
A second language can also broaden your cultural horizons. Language and culture go hand-in-hand; foreign language study therefore often involves learning more about foreign cultures too. Learning a new language therefore increases your knowledge of the wider world.
If you learn to speak a new language, you unlock whole new catalogs of film, TV, and literature to enjoy in that language. There’s no need to stick simply to English-language media when you have the rich cultural libraries of other countries to explore as well.
The many advantages of bilingualism listed above mean there are clearly plenty of reasons to learn a new language. Expanding your language skills beyond your mother tongue can provide all sorts of benefits, such as career progression, memory improvement.
Plus not to mention a second language also helps to slow down brain aging and opens up new opportunities in countries that speak the languages that you learn. That said, even basic skills in another language can improve your life in many unexpected ways.
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