Why Learning a New Language Is Great for Your Mental Wellbeing
Why would you want to learn a new language?
Do you want to advance your career by working in a foreign office? Could you want to live abroad in Japan, Germany, or France? But learning a new language also provides plenty of mental and cognitive benefits. Learning a second language has extra benefits — it can improve memory and intelligence. Plus, it can fight conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia.
Learning a foreign language is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
What Are the Benefits of Learning a New Language?
It can be difficult to learn a new language.
It takes about 480 hours for English speakers to learn similar languages. It takes around 720 hours to learn unfamiliar languages like Greek and Chinese. But learning a new language can improve mental health in ways that make it well worth your time. Here are a few:
Increased Attention Span
Research from Northwestern University found something interesting. Bilinguals always have both languages "active" in their brain. That means they're switching between the two when needed.
Participants picked images based on words they heard. They also had to ignore similar-sounding competing words.
For example, one test had participants find "cloud" while ignoring the similar-sounding "clown." Bilinguals were much better at ignoring similar-sounding words and choosing the correct ones.
Similar research measured how well participants blocked distractions and maintained focus. Bilinguals responded faster than monolinguals. Researchers suggest that their brains are better at maintaining focus.
Being bilingual means you must pay attention to which language you're using. This small mental exercise improves attention by filtering out unnecessary information. Over time, it builds inhibitory control in the brain.
In other words, they become better at ignoring distractions. One study found bilingual children filtered out background noise better than monolinguals.
Being bilingual is also a great memory booster, according to research.
One study tested the abilities of bilingual and monolingual children. Both groups took various visuospatial and working memory tests. Bilingual children outperformed monolinguals, especially on processing-related tasks.
These results held true after controlling for vocabulary and socioeconomic status.
Other studies using working memory tests found similar results. One found that bilingual children had faster and more accurate responses than monolinguals.
Switching between two languages makes you better at switching tasks. That's what one study from NIH says. The study examined how monolinguals and bilinguals switched between tasks.
Children looked at pictures of either animals or colors. Then, they pressed a corresponding button.
They responded at the same speed when the categories stayed the same. Yet, bilinguals were much faster at switching categories.
Researchers said that this task helps measure three mental processes:
- Working Memory: The ability to keep one thing in mind
- Inhibition: Preventing yourself from doing something
- Shifting: Changing processes
Better Cognitive Functions
Learning a foreign language improves your brain in many ways. Researchers found that learning a new language improves verbal fluency, reading, and intelligence.
The study tested people in their seventies and compared the results to intelligence tests taken at age 11. The study found that bilinguals scored much greater in cognitive ability tests than expected.
Researchers found improvements in focus, fluency, and attention. They couldn't attribute these improvements to intelligence alone. This research shows that learning a new language can improve cognition.
These benefits occur no matter when learned.
Learning a foreign language makes you better at problem-solving, according to research. Researchers gave children a variety of problems. These include repeating numbers, defining words, and solving math problems in their head.
As expected, bilingual children excelled in these tests. The children had improved mental alertness from switching between languages.
Your brain is a muscle that you must exercise. Learning a second language is one of the best exercises out there.
One study compared the brains of both bilingual and monolingual undergraduates. Researchers discovered that bilingual students had increased grey matter. Learning helped transform the students' prefrontal and parietal cortex.
Plus, bilingualism improves your white matter as you age. White matter helps send messages across the brain. It increases the brain's neurons and strengthens or maintains their connections.
Better Mental Health
Learning a new language can also ward off the age-related decline that starts around age 25. That decline steepens with age.
While bilingual brains still deteriorate, they make up for it in unusual ways. Their brains formed alternative pathways and connections.
The original pathways deteriorated, but the brains still ran smoothly. Scientists call this "cognitive compensation."
Being bilingual can help with Alzheimer's, according to one study. Researchers scanned the brains of Alzheimer's patients and found some startling differences. There were 85 participants in total, 45 of which were bilingual.
Monolinguals had reduced metabolism in some key brain areas compared to bilinguals. Bilinguals also had improved connections between the brain areas related to executive control. Keep in mind that both groups were at similar stages in Alzheimer's.
The study concluded that being bilingual can delay Alzheimer's effects by five years.
Supporting Your Mental Health
Learning a new language is more than a fun activity. It's something that can help support your mental health. It can improve your cognitive function for years to come.
It's important to stay sharp, even in old age. Taking a second language course activates many areas of your brain. It keeps the connections strong and healthy.
Yet, it's not the only way to support your mental health. Journaling, meditation, and affirmations all promote well-being.