Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.
In Europe, one of the few continents with actual data on bilingualism, 54% of Europeans are fluent in a second language while 10% are conversational in at least three languages. Overall, it’s estimated that nearly 50% of the world’s population is bilingual—yet only only 9% of US citizens speak their native language and a second language fluently.
At Whitby, we think it’s important to change that. With so many international students and a well-established language acquisition program, we see the benefits of bilingualism on a daily basis. Language learning not only helps students become citizens of the world, it has social and cognitive benefits as well. And we’re not just saying that—the scientific data backs up our stance that language acquisition helps students become better thinkers and learners.
Here are six ways students benefit by becoming fluent in another language:
1. Increased Empathy
Famed New York Times international correspondent Flora Lewis, wrote that “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” She was right. Learning another language encourages the brain to look at life from a different perspective. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that early exposure to a second language helps kids become more proficient at taking the perspective of another person. This increased empathy leads to better ability to understand others, both while communicating in their native language and in their acquired language(s).
2. Better Cultural Understanding
Just like the eyes are a window into the soul, language is the window into a culture. The Ancient Greeks, creators of the dramatic forms of comedy and tragedy, used six different words for love, each to indicate a different context and situation. The Inuit language has 53 words for snow, while the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia use more than 1,000 words to talk specifically about reindeer. In each case, the language has evolved to focus on words that are important to the everyday life of that culture. By studying the language, and especially by reading native language texts, students can learn what is most important to that civilization.
3. Heightened English Language Skills
Since children often learn their own language by immersion, they don't always understand why they choose certain words and phrases. Learning another language, however, teaches children grammatical concepts they may not fully understand in their native language. As far back as 2007, the National Research Council found that studying a foreign language helps students develop a better understanding of English grammar.
For example, Spanish helps students learn more about how a verb can change depending on the tense (past, present, future) and the nouns that are modifying it (first person singular, first person plural, second person singular, etc.) Chinese, on the other hand, teaches students to quickly identify adverbs and adjectives, and to change the order of a sentence.
4. Sharpened Ability to Focus
Learning a new language takes the brain off autopilot by forcing it to file information in a new way. More importantly, intense study of a new language increases focus overall—not just during study of that foreign language. Researchers at Edinburgh University found that when someone studies a new language, their brain becomes better able to concentrate, and they become a better listener because their brain becomes more practiced at filtering out relevant information from what they hear. Even more importantly, the increased ability to concentrate remains even after that person is no longer actively studying a language.
5. A More Efficient Brain
Learning to think in two languages has an interesting effect on the brain. With the need to search two sets of vocabulary to find the right words, the brain adapts by becoming more efficient. As a result, bilingual people become better at handling complex information, especially in higher stress situations such as conflict resolution. Since bilingual people also practice switching between two different language sets, they also become better at multitasking, even if those tasks have nothing to do with language.
6. Long-term Memory Benefits
Finally, bilingualism has long-term cognitive benefits. When people become fluent in a second language (or more), they develop a higher density of grey matter in their brain, which controls speech, decision making and emotions. As they age, bilingual people also better-maintain the amount of white matter in their brains. Learning additional languages has been shown to keep the brain sharp longer and has even delay symptoms of dementia.
The Benefits of Language Acquisition
When students get the opportunity to dive into another language, they not only gain the ability to interact more naturally with people of different cultures, they also gain cognitive benefits that will stay with them through life.
To learn more about our language learning program at Whitby, schedule a tour or read about why we don't let students speak English in Spanish class.