Learning a new language is not just about memorizing the grammatical, structural, and mechanical patterns of a language. It's so much more than that. It's a process of understanding the culture it stems from and the people who speak it. You can develop yourself through this process to form new perspectives about the world we all live in.
Perspective Switches Depending on Which Language You Use
A study conducted by psycho-linguists at Lancaster University in the UK suggested that speaking a second language can aid personal development by enabling the speaker/learner to think more flexibly. The way individuals from different countries use their languages has been an area of interest for scientists for a long time. It is understood that speakers of different languages tend to plan ideas in varying ways, place emphasis on diverse elements within specific contexts, and generally have fluctuating views of the world.
This study dug a little deeper into this notion by exploring how being bilingual can affect their worldview. The study explored how German and English speakers view events.
As a theme, the team found that monolingual German speakers were very goal-orientated in the way they understood the video clips they were shown. Monolingual English speakers were more focused on the action events of the clips as opposed to the end goal. The study found that those who spoke both English and German could switch between the two perspectives depending on what language was most prevalent in their minds.
This research illustrates that the language used by an individual provides varying perspectives on the same event. At the same time, it reinforces the idea that languages provide an opportunity for the speaker to view, understand, and express their experience in new ways.
The language used by the study participants seemed to unconsciously impact their perception of the event they were watching. When the subjects were told to count in German whilst viewing the video clips, they seemed to focus on the action of the sequence (an English-speaking trait). When asked to count in English and draw conclusions about the video they tended to focus on the goal of the video (a typical German-speaking trait); this unconscious perception framing through language usage is interesting.
Speaking to Science Journal about this study at the time of its release (2015) scientist Phillip Wolff from Emory University, Atlanta said:
“If you’re a bilingual speaker, you’re able to entertain different perspectives and go back and forth. That really hasn’t been shown before.”
Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language - Reduces Negative Effects of Ageing & Aids Creativity
Research from the British Academy, a research body in the UK focusing on social sciences and humanities, found that language learning also boosts the learners' creativity. This will open up new ways of expressing yourself and thinking about your environment.
The study found that learning a second language improves the learner’s 'fluency, originality, and creativity' in their first language. Researchers felt this may be because of the cognitive processes required to learn a new language. This includes being willing to adapt to language switching and the amount of practice needed to learn a new language.
The same study suggested that bilingualism could be a ‘safeguard’ against the ‘cognitive decline’ associated with getting older. Bilingualism could help the older generation because learning a language uses an extensive brain network that generally tends to decline with age. This means older people could help their brains to remain strong and in turn keep developing and widening their perspectives into their old age.
Language Learning Enhances Sensory Perception
Another fascinating study found that language learning can actually alter the speaker's sensory perception capacities. Research, carried out by Northwestern University showed that bilingual people use both auditory and visual senses to understand situations, specifically in relation to speech.
This study showed that a monolingual and bilingual person listening to the same speech can hear completely different sounds. This is called the ‘McGurk Effect’. This is when people comprise mismatching information and form a new sound.
Bilinguals rely upon what they see by looking at the speaker's mouth, for example, to make sense of what they hear. Visual information helps them understand speech better. They integrate both senses simultaneously and use them in a new way across the different languages they speak to communicate more effectively.
This research shows that the language we speak can affect our cognitive processes. Therefore, individuals who speak multiple languages can think and process information in a more effective and creative way.
Boosts Academic Performance
The same study mentioned above by The British Academy also explored the academic benefits of learning a language at any level of fluency, separately from being bilingual. Their research found that 90% of studies exploring the effects of language learning on achievement show that it aids development across many subjects.
This is the case across many different countries and for language learners of all ages, backgrounds, and levels. The studies found that those learning different languages may take a while to excel. But, these learners soon caught up and did their best across their curriculum. Those undertaking immersive language learning classes for several years showed better results.
The study also found that those from minority-language households tended to do better academically if they maintained their connection to and speaking of their primary language. For example, students who continued to learn and speak Spanish at school in the USA did better in English and Maths than their native Spanish-speaking peers who did not continue to learn Spanish.
This study illustrates the importance of immersion when learning a language. It also shows how much of a positive impact it can have on a variety of areas in the students' lives. Remaining committed to the language you are learning, practicing regularly, and maintaining a dedication to language development is proven to have positive cognitive and academic benefits.
Does this resonate with you? Have you started learning Japanese and found that your performance in other areas of your life has started to improve? It’s something to explore and reflect upon for yourself.
Ability to Compare and Contrast
It is interesting to view the process of language learning through the model of Cognitivism theory, as done so by Health Research Funding. This theory sees the process of learning a second language as a reasoned thinking process that occurs consciously. This contrasts with the behaviorist theory which sees language learning as occurring automatically.
The learners can recognize the new language's patterns and structures. They then repeat these in order for it to become an understood and usable method of communication. Then, they recognize structures and patterns within their primary language. They compare and contrast them with the second language to learn it more completely.
This definitely resonates with me. I have learned Spanish and am learning Japanese, and I have found that during the learning process, I am able to better understand the syntax, vocabulary, and grammar of the new language by contrasting it to English, in which I am fluent.
For example, in English I would say:
My name is Alison
In Japanese I would say:
Alison to iimasu (translated as Alison is my name)
By understanding that in the Japanese language, the name (noun) comes first, not the pronoun and abstract noun, it is helpful in being able to structure sentences. This again links to the idea that dual language learners have the ability to think more laterally and use this creative thinking to learn new skills and express themselves in a creative way.
With language so heavily rooted in the culture it stems from, the learning process ultimately involves gaining a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage of the people who speak it and the country it is used within.
You only have to hear a few examples of common phrases in different countries to gain a sense of the culture. For example, a phrase in English is “Night night don’t let the bedbugs bite” - this is often spoken when saying goodnight to someone (usually a child).
This phrase originated from people who were sleeping in servants' quarters in England who slept upon mattresses filled with hay. Within these, there were a lot of insects that used to bite the people sleeping on top of them.
So when learning the English language and hearing this common saying the learner understands the phrase from a historical perspective but also gains an understanding of the native speakers' mentality. To me, this saying evokes a feeling of hardiness as well as a sense of humor and illustrates that a British trait is to make light of a situation that is difficult and uncomfortable in order to deal better with it (also known as self-deprecation).
A Swedish saying is “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. This attitude is called friluftsliv (pronounced free-lofts-liv) and literally means ‘open-air living’.
This saying again can help those learning Swedish to understand more about the Swedish people as well as the attitudes within the country. It evokes a love of nature alongside a sense of humor. It also conjures up images of a fluctuating, unpredictable climate and suggests a matter of fact in the way native people deal with it. It implies that there is always a way around things within our environment even if you have to approach the resolution from a slightly different perspective.
Anecdotally and academically it is clear that learning a new language has many benefits, specifically the capacity to open up your mind and heart to new ways of being and thinking. To understand this more fully you can start your language learning journey with We and enroll today to begin that perspective-shifting process.
Wishing you the best of luck and thank you for reading.
Author: Alison, WEs English coach and feature writer