Steffanie Zazulak reveals why the side effects are (almost) as valuable as the main effect.

Most people endeavor to learn a new language for the inherent benefits of being conversant or fluent in such tongue—the ability to better communicate with other people who do not speak their native language, whether it is in the context of business, tourism, politics, cultural learning, or academics. The British Council estimates that by 2020 over 2 billion people will be learning English around the world. And that huge volume of English learners makes so much sense, especially now in our connected world—only by sharing a common language can cultures come together and learn from one another.

Despite the fact that most learners begin their journey with a new language for tangible and practical benefits, there is a sizeable portfolio of research that points to a secondary advantage for learners of a new language—the significant and pervasive cognitive benefits of language learning. Similar to the effect of physical exercise on our muscles, learning a language makes the brain function better by improving connections among its various parts, which can result in honing overall decision-making ability and boosting our ability to learn in any subject. And these benefits are not limited to young learners—adults learning a new language gain similar benefits too!

Specifically, some of the cognitive benefits include…

  • Being a better listener: Being bilingual requires your brain to discern between two sets of very distinctive sounds and to accurately identify those speech sounds.
  • Being less distracted: Speaking in a foreign tongue requires the active suppressing of the other language(s) that one knows, showing to better inhibit overall distractions.
  • Becoming a better multitasker: For someone who knows multiple languages, it’s a common occurrence to switch rapidly between tongues, effectively an exercise in quickly and efficiently switching between different tasks.
  • Better ability to problem-solve and be creative: Speaking in a foreign tongue inevitably requires creativity when one is faced with unfamiliar words or phrases in order to communicate effectively. Studies have shown that bilinguals have an advantage in overall problem solving and creativity.

All of the above are related to what researchers refer to as “executive control” —the ability to manipulate and control our attention: to inhibit responses, ignore irrelevant stimuli, and flip between tasks. Having this linguistic flexibility results in better control in non-linguistic tasks as well.

The cognitive benefits are not just intellectual (if that weren’t enough!); language learning has potential medical benefits as well. A study from the University of Edinburgh found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities in later life and had effectively slowed the brain’s aging, with potential to even delay the onset of dementia. The same researchers found that bilingual people are twice as likely to recover from a stroke than those who speak just one language. Dr Thomas Bak, one of the researchers, said that switching between one language and another “offers practically constant brain training which may be a factor in helping stroke patients recover.”

Improvements for the learner

In our experience, learning a language significantly and quickly improves performance that is relevant for one’s schooling and one’s career, while at the same time enhancing the ability for all of us to understand each other. In a world where the barriers of time and distance are constantly shrinking, overcoming the language barrier creates endless possibilities. However, the good news is even better with potentially other long-term benefits for the individual learner, for companies, and for society as a whole. This “side effect” of language learning is effectively healthy exercise for the brain, and the benefits of these cognitive and medical improvements accrue to the learner as well as global employers and communities that are now able to better harness the increased aptitude and creativity of these learners. The value to society from these benefits may be more difficult to measure, but it is undeniably powerful.

In this article