A myriad of benefits to language learning

Published 5:15 pm Friday, April 15, 2022

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How many of you had the chance to learn another language when you were in school?

Most schools offer at least one option to learn something other than English. When I was a student at Ridgecroft, we had Spanish classes in elementary and high school. And one year when I was in middle school, we had the lucky opportunity to learn Latin. I believe many of the other local schools around here also offer Spanish, or maybe French, to their students to learn.

When I headed off to college, I decided to take advantage of the chance to learn Japanese. (Regular readers of my column know by now how interested I am in Japanese language and culture.) If I’d had the time, I think it would have been fun to check out a few other language classes as well. I know the school offered more Spanish courses, along with Arabic, Chinese, German, and more.

I’ve always heard that the younger you start learning a language, the easier it is to pick it up. And that makes sense to me, since we’re learning so much as children already. What’s one more thing to learn, right? When we get older, it feels like our brains aren’t as “stretchy” and that makes it harder for language learning to stick. It’s not impossible, however, if you want to learn; it just takes a bit more time and effort.

There are plenty of documented benefits from learning a second language.

Firstly, of course, it broadens the amount of people you can communicate with. Spanish, for example, is useful to know in our local area. Communication issues can be frustrating, but when you know the language yourself, you don’t have to rely on another person to translate (or even worse, Google Translate.)

Studying another language also improves how your brain functions. According to several different websites I read on the subject, language learning will improve your memory, which makes sense when you think about all the new vocabulary and grammar you have to add to the stockpile in your brain. Studies have also shown that speaking another language helps reduce your cognitive decline. Basically, switching between languages is a good way to keep your brain active for a longer amount of time.

Learning a new language can also help you hone other skills. A personal example: I’ve always been more of a visual learner than an audio one. I usually can absorb information better through reading or writing it. But language learning often includes a spoken/listening component as well. I struggled with that aspect the most, but after several years of focus, I’m definitely better at audio learning than I was before. (And that helps me in my job now too, since I’m always listening to people speak!)

You’ll also find that language learning can help you ‘think outside the box.’ Let’s say, for example, I’m having a conversation with someone in another language, but I don’t know the vocabulary word for something specific, such as “library.” So I have to work with the vocabulary I actually do know to describe what I want to say, like calling it “a house of books” instead. My description may sound silly, but it gets the task accomplished and it’s a good way to think about different ways to say the same thing.

This might surprise you, but learning to speak a different language can also help you with English as well. When I was studying Japanese in college, I signed up to be a tutor to help out other students who were having trouble with the class. Sometimes I’d have to explain the English version of a grammar concept first, such as a direct object, before I could help them understand the Japanese equivalent. This helped both of us to understand our native language better than before too. If you first understand the pattern to use direct objects in English, then it’s easier to learn the pattern for another language too.

(As a side note, I’ll never forget how helpful it was to have a year of learning Latin before we got back to learning Spanish again. Latin may not be a spoken language anymore, but learning the concept of Latin verb conjugations made it easier to learn how to do verb conjugations in Spanish as well.)

There can be economic benefits for learning a second language too. Having that skill on your resume opens up the opportunity for a wider range of jobs, including more international ones. Communication skills can open so many doors for opportunities.

But even if you aren’t looking to use your language skills for work, there’s still also the added benefit of learning more about the culture while you’re learning the language. The best parts of Spanish class when I was in elementary school were when we got to learn about things like holidays and foods. In the college Japanese class, we had an assignment once to cook a Japanese dish. And when you want to be immersed enough to help you learn more vocabulary, then it’s helpful to listen to music and TV shows and movies in that language.

I don’t take any language classes anymore, so my skills are getting rusty. But it’s been fun to find different media to watch just to keep the wheels turning in my brain. (Pull out any DVDs you own and check if they have different language options! You’d be surprised at what you can find sometimes.)

Please encourage any young people in your life to consider learning a second (or even a third) language, especially if they have the opportunity at school. And if you feel like you may be too old to learn, I promise that it’s never too late to try. There are countless resources to get you started, and the benefits are definitely worth it. In more ways than one!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.