The smell of pastries and French cuisine filled the air. Walking into my first French “Pâtisserie,” I was amazed; it was everything I had imagined and more. Endless choices overwhelmed me so I decided to try something new. After taking French for three years I have learned how to order politely. “Je voudrais une tarte aux pommes, s’il vous plaît,” I said. In English it means “I would like an apple tarte, please.” Nicely, the barista grabbed my pastry and I then joined my family at a table near the window. While enjoying my tart I overheard an exchange with another tourist and the barista. The tourist said “Je veux un croissant.” Our exchanges were slightly different, but just those few words annoyed the barista. The other tourist had said “I want a croissant” which in English doesn’t seem too rude, however in French it is degrading to the barista. It was kind that the other tourist had tried to speak in French instead of resorting to English. However, due to his lack of knowledge he had offended the barista without realizing it. Trying to use the language of a different country when visiting is respectful, but it can easily backfire if one doesn’t fully understand what he/she is saying. Knowing subtle language differences allowed me to be respectful in all of my interactions in France.

While I was in France I was able to practice all the skills I had learned over the past few years. Putting all my knowledge to use was a satisfactory feeling, I finally was able to see my true progress. Visiting France gave me a new excitement for learning French. Learning more about the French culture allowed me to compare it to my own. Realizing not everyone leads the same type of life as me was life-changing. My little bubble formed by my small Okemos community popped. I realized all places in the world are different and I became more aware of my surroundings and decided my way might not always be the right way.

Not only has learning a language positively affected my life, but it also has affected the lives of millions of other people. Studies, research and first hand accounts all show the multitude of benefits of learning another language. Cultural awareness, improved cognitive and native language abilities, and health benefits are all effects of learning another language. Few people understand how helpful studying another language is, which is the main reason why it is important to discuss the benefits. Everyone should have knowledge of the positive aspects of learning a foreign language and hopefully this information will convince them to do so.

When learning a new language we are not only beginning to understand the language, but we also learn about the associated culture. Being culturally aware is extremely important and is what helps all countries and people work together. It also is respectful to try to understand someone else’s way of life. Trying to comprehend other cultures shows that we are interested in people besides ourselves, our families and our friends. In my case, I have learned interesting information about a variety of Francophone cultures in my French class. While learning about their ways of life, I have started to reflect on my customs and life decisions. Learning about a new culture opened up my little world and made me think about other communities besides my own. As mentioned in an article by Penn State, “Learning a second language… allows for an exchange for cultural norms and practices, furthering one’s education in respect to life different than their own” (A Case, 2013).  Therefore, languages help us be respectful to everyone no matter their background. Languages add to our development of cultural sensitivity, meaning we recognize someone else’s customs and beliefs even if we do not agree with them. Instead of believing one culture is better than the other, we begin to view the variations as positive. The information we learn while studying another language helps establish our cultural awareness and sensitivity. It is unnecessary to fully understand all cultures, but we should at least show interest in another culture rather than condemn it.  

Besides the respect shown by understanding how cultures vary, knowing a certain country’s language subconsciously and positively changes our attitude to that country and its citizens. The American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages has provided several studies that support this idea. For example it states, “an experimental group of 63 5th grade pupils who had been learning Spanish and a matched controlled group of pupils who had not been learning Spanish were tested to determine attitudes toward people of other countries” (Riestra & Johnson, 1964).  The results were as expected; the attitudes of the experimental group toward Spanish speakers were more positive than those of the other group of students (Riestra, M. A., & Johnson, C. E, 1964). Although not everyone publically states their feelings, they may have reserved thoughts about a specific culture or type of people. Once someone begins to learn a language, the language becomes a part of him/her and it is easy to associate oneself with the native speakers. Thoughts become less judgmental and more understanding because in a way it would be insulting oneself since he/she knows the language.

Studying a foreign languages also aids us in a better understanding of our native language. A popular way to learn another language is to relate it to the language we already know. As I was learning French I learned more about English and why certain words are used in some phrases and not in others. For example, I discovered what subjunctives are and how they are utilized in English. Not only did this new knowledge help me in my French class, but also in my literature classes and in my daily life. Before learning what a subjunctive was I said some sentences grammatically incorrect. Now I say the sentences that use the subjunctive correctly and can catch whether others are doing it right. My situation is not uncommon. Usually when people learn their first language, they pay little attention to the basic mechanics. So like me, they must review the general rules of their native language before beginning another language. Due to this new knowledge our speaking and writing abilities improve.

Our ability to understand and learn new languages is due to everything that occurs in our brain. Brains allow us to memorize new vocabulary and understand grammar structures and eventually arrive at the point where we no longer have to think about what we are saying, we just say it. When studying a new language we use the part of our brain that deals with complex ideas. This part of our brain needs to be used frequently, so using it when learning another language helps our cerebral skills improve. Improvement of memory, focusing abilities and multitasking are all examples of the effect that bilingualism has on our cerebral functions.

Our memory strengthens with all the information we have to accumulate and handle while learning another language. One study completed in Canada examined the working memory which is associated with the accumulation and processing of information. The study proved there is a correlation between bilingualism and a better memory. In the study, children from ages five to seven were tested because these ages are when the working memory is undergoing important development. Tasks that require use of the working memory were completed by monolingual and bilingual children. The results were as expected, “The researchers found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children in working memory tasks. Indeed, the more complex the tasks the better their performance” (University of Granada, 2013).  Also, the study found bilingualism affects the entire working memory, not only specific parts. While learning French for six years, I have watched my memory improve. Not only learning the grammatical style of the French language, but also memorizing new vocabulary has increased my memorization abilities. When I used to study for tests I would remember a little of what I learned in class, but I would have to review the material several times. Now, when I start studying I realize I already know a majority of the material just from one lesson given by my teacher. While taking French is probably not the sole reason for this improvement it has definitely aided memorization abilities.

Deciding what language to use in certain situations gives our brain practice with filtering information and choosing the correct word in certain contexts. Finding the correct words and ignoring the irrelevant ones is a part of a bilingual speaker’s everyday life. Victoria Marian, the lead researcher of the department of communications from Northwestern University, (2014) agrees with this idea. She stated, “It’s like a stop light, bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need.”  In this quote Marian (2014) is describing the process that occurs in the brains of bilinguals in a simpler way. Bilinguals encounter many cross-roads where they  must ignore the irrelevant information and choose what is most useful for their purpose. Our ability to find differences is because of the practice we endure while learning another language. Fluently speaking a language requires our brain to be completely function in that language. Therefore we practice deciding what words and formation of phrases are used in the language we are currently speaking. This ability to find the differences aids foreign language learners in both focusing and multitasking.

Focusing is simple if what needs to be concentrated on is obvious. Luckily for bilinguals it is simple because of all the practice they endure. Marian (2014) completed a study that tested the ability of volunteers to disregard unimportant information. A word would be said to the volunteers as they were shown pictures of the object stated and other objects that have names similar to what was said.  In order to score well, the participants had to disregard the name similarities to find the matching picture. Unsurprisingly, bilinguals scored higher on the test because of all the practice they have had with separating languages. As Marian (2014) states,  “Inhibitory control is a hallmark of cognition. Whether we’re driving or performing surgery, it’s important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn’t.”  Knowing what to focus on reduces how easily we are distracted which can be extremely beneficial, even life-saving in some situations.

The same benefits of learning another language translate over to an improved ability to multitask. Once bilinguals figure out the difference in a certain situation they can apply it in order to complete various tasks at once. After finding the relevant information multitasking is much easier because we are only focused on what is important. In Science Daily, Peggy McCardle the chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development notes, “Bilinguals have two sets of language rules in mind, and their brains apparently are wired to toggle back and forth between them depending on the circumstances” (Science Daily, 2012). Within a moment bilinguals can be expected to switch between languages. A similar activity is expected of multi-taskers, but instead of switching between languages they are switching between tasks, thoughts or activities.

Our brains improve while learning another language, but how does this help us? What is so beneficial about having a stronger brain? First of all, there are many academic accomplishments that we acquire due to our improved brains, from everyday academic activities to important standardized tests. The skills we develop from studying a foreign language are what causes us to outperform those who aren’t studying another language. A study was completed that showed the effect of foreign language study on ACT scores. Students who took the exam were asked whether they were bilingual/currently studying a language. The students who were influenced by another language regularly scored above those who have not (Olsen & Brown, 1992). All of the above cerebral skills along with improvement of one’s native language is what helps bilinguals score better on standardized tests like the ACT. Secondly, we are not only a better candidate for colleges, but also for some jobs as well. Knowing a foreign language is not just another qualification on a college essay or resume, it provides a distinct advantage. The amount of intelligence it takes to master another language is obvious to most people, so bilingualism easily sets you apart from other candidates. Also, many people know the skills that are developed with bilingualism and having those assets is attractive to businesses. Plus, some professions are only available to those who speak more than one language. An article from CNN mentioned, “Roughly 25,000 jobs are expected to open up for interpreters…  and translators, between 2010 and 2020… that represents 42% growth for the field” (Kurtz, 2013). Here, Kurtz discusses the fact that not only bilinguals are a better candidate, but have access to more job opportunities.

One of the most powerful benefits of learning a new language is health related. As we age our brains age with us. Depending on the way we use our brains when we are young we can delay the beginning of certain brain diseases. While utilizing our brain in different ways we develop brain power which comes in handy when we are beginning to lose our memory. The risk of contracting some brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia can be delayed by studying a new language. Several psychologist professors from York University in Toronto studied Alzheimer’s patients to try and find a significant impact that bilingualism had on the patients. One of the professors, Ellen Bialystok found “While all the patients had similar levels of cognitive impairment, the researchers found that those who were bilingual had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later, on average, than those who spoke just one language” (Moskowitz, 2011).  In the study, the professors realized that although being bilingual does not prevent Alzheimer’s it can delay the symptoms for several years. Next, they asked why this happen. Separating two languages from intertwining and sorting through the various options for a word or phrase requires a part of the brain that allows us to think in complex ways, known as the executive control system. Bilingual individuals constantly have to use this part of their brain which gives them the ability to behave normally even after a disease has begun in their brain (Moskowitz, 2011). Not only is learning a foreign language a great way to delay brain diseases, but it also is one of the best methods to postpone a cerebral disease. An article on BBC (2013) mentions that learning a foreign language is even better than other artificial brain training programs especially when trying to delay the onset of Dementia or Alzheimer’s. A few more years of an active memory would mean the world to most people. Learning a language keeps our memories functioning longer without using artificial methods.

With so many significant reasons to learn another language it seems like there aren’t any drawbacks. Personally, I have not experienced any, however everyone is different. Some people acquire a great amount of stress once they start to study a new language. For these people they usually endure stress no matter what they are trying to learn. However with languages the anxiety is intensified because of how long it takes to be able to listen, read, write and speak in a new language. Suzanne Koenig explains, “Foreign language students experience a deficiency at being able to speak the language properly for a long time and can experience a great deal of anxiety when it comes to getting it right.” Although a few people agree with the anxiety that can be caused by learning a new language there is not much substantial evidence. Mostly this idea is brought up by a few people who were forced to take a language in either high school or college and trying to pass the class caused them to stress. This means these people were more likely stressed out about passing the class rather than the actual language.

The rest of my trip in France I was able to experience more of the French culture and speak with natives. From being a typical tourist in Paris to trekking through a small town of fifty inhabitants in the Alps, I was able to experience many parts of France. I was able to enjoy this opportunity more authentically because of my ability to understand the language. Although I was a tourist, I did not feel like an outsider. I blended in because I could speak French and because I was aware of France’s cultural expectations. This inspiring experience wouldn’t have ever occured if I had never taken French. Overall, languages have had significant impacts on lives all around the world. Languages have helped bilingual people individually and they have also improved our world as a whole. We are able to ameliorate our lives while also bettering the world we reside in. With so many benefits both health and academic related, why not learn another language?

 

References

A Case for Emphasizing Secondary Language Education in the United States. Benefits of Learning a Second Language, Retrieved from: https://sites.psu.edu/secondlanguagebenefits/

BBC News. (2013). Speaking a second language may delay dementia. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-24836837

Koenig, S. The Positive & Negative Effects of Learning a Foreign Language. Classroom. Retrieved from: http://classroom.synonym.com/positive-effects-learning-foreign-language-8207715.html

Kurtz, A. (2013). The hottest job skill is…. CNN Money.  Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2013/10/30/news/economy/job-skills-foreign-language/index.html

Marian, S. (2014). Bilingual brains better equipped to process information. EurekAlert!.  Retrieved from: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-11/nu-bbb111014.php

Moskowitz, C. (2011). Learning a Second Language Protects Against Alzheimer’s. Live Science. Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/12917-learning-language-bilingual-protects-alzheimers.html

Olsen,  S.A., Brown, L.K. (1992). The relation between high school study of foreign languages and ACT English and mathematics performance. ADFL Bulletin, 23(3). Retrieved from:https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ444553

Riestra, M. A., & Johnson, C. E. (1964). Changes in attitudes of elementary-school pupils toward foreign-speaking pupils resulting from the study of a foreign language. Journal of Experimental Education, 33(1), 65-72. Retrieved from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220973.1964.11010856?journalCode=vjxe20&

Science Daily. (2012). Bilingual children switch tasks faster than speakers of a single language. Retrieved from: http://classroom.synonym.com/positive-effects-learning-foreign-language-8207715.html

University of Granada. (2013). Bilingual children have a better ‘working memory’ than monolingual children. Science Daily. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130220084444.htm

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