In the United States, it seems everyone is impressed by polyglots. It’s not surprising when less than one percent of the adult population is proficient in the foreign language they studied in school. If you speak a second language in the U.S., you likely either learned it at home or put in a lot of personal effort by choice. It’s really a tragedy since there are so many benefits to language learning.
The benefits of being bilingual
Learning a language is a really healthy form of exercise for the brain. In fact, the effect of learning a language can literally be seen in the brain. Polyglots and bilingual speakers have been shown to have more gray matter and better white matter retention in the brain than their monolingual peers. This is possible because of something called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change based on environmental factors and thought patterns. Speakers of multiple languages were shown to have a stronger working memory, better attention skills, and are more effective at task-switching. Overall, it appears learning additional languages can increase mental acuity.
Despite these benefits, there is no current consensus about whether being a polyglot can delay the onset of diseases like dementia. That said, there are some studies that suggest that the onset of dementia was delayed by an average of 4.5 years for multilingual persons compared to monolingual persons.
In addition to the physical benefits, you now have an entirely new part of the world open to you. You gain the ability to understand and connect with many people who have a different culture and way of life. Having friendships around the world with people who are different from you can help make the world seem a little more known and a little less scary.
“I’m too old now. I’m not a kid anymore.”
This is a myth that just won’t die. It’s never too late to start learning something new. It’s true that, in some ways, learning additional languages is easier as a child. That said, adults are actually better at learning than children are. The reason it seems easier to learn as a child is because children have less social fears. They are much more willing to try and speak or ask what something is or means. Adults often avoid using their second language unless they believe they can say what they want to perfectly. This means adults tend to progress less quickly.
But they don’t have to. By accepting ahead of time that you will make mistakes, you can overcome the fear of speaking. Yes, you will likely say something embarrassing at some point, but as long as you can laugh at yourself a little, you’ll find it’s not the end of the world. Most people around the world are very kind and helpful to people attempting to learn their language.
Our education system failed you
There are many different theories about how best to learn additional languages. Some polyglots learn from books, some learn from private instructors, many use the internet. Learning is a very individual process so it’s often about finding what works best for you. Polyglots do tend to agree on one thing however, that the method used by most high school classrooms simply doesn’t work well. So if you tried to learn a second language in high school and failed, it’s probably not because you can’t learn a language. Most likely, you were never taught that language through an effective method.
Currently, there is a debate in the language learning community about the difference in benefits between learning a language and acquiring a language. Most people learn additional languages. They study grammar, vocabulary, and culture. Then they practice forming sentences based on what they’ve learned. Most of the world does this, and many successful polyglots use various methods to learn more efficiently. They use methods such as creative word groupings, spaced repetition, and word frequency lists to speed the process along.
Acquiring a language is different. You acquired your native language. When you study to acquire a new language, there are no grammar books, no vocabulary lists, and no practice drills. The idea of acquiring a language is to imitate how you become fluent in your native language. It involves working with a native speaker and focusing predominantly on input. The teacher uses visual aids such as magazines or children’s books and describes what they see or what is happening. The benefit of this method is mental fluency. When we speak in our native tongue, we rarely need to think about how to say what we want; we just say it. The goal of the acquisition method is to achieve this comfort-level with your non-native language.
Ready to start? Here are some great tools to get you started.
One of the amazing things about today’s technology is how it can connect people around the world. Now the cost of learning a second language is so low, anyone can do it. Applications you can use include Babel, Duolingo, and Fluentforever. There are dozens of websites which offer lessons from native speakers, or the opportunity to language swap. Language swapping is when two people want to learn the other’s language so they split their time between the two languages. Don’t forget to check out YouTube and podcasts as well. You can find everything from free lessons to music in the language you want to learn. If you watch television, and you are learning a major world language, you can usually find content in your chosen language through cable or a streaming service.
Whether you decide to learn a language by more traditional methods or by attempting to acquire one, you will only benefit from the challenge of learning an additional language.