French was always a beautiful language to me.
I took it for a few years in high school from a teacher whose name eludes me now but who had a way of emphasizing syllables with her fingers. The class had a few cut-ups, and no small share of each class period was spent attending to or ignoring their antics. Still, after all the quizzes, conversations and examinations, all I’ve left today is, well, an appreciation for the language.
A second attempt at learning a new language came about 10 years later. Except for the first few minutes of the very first class, the instructor spoke only in Spanish and the class — a mix of undergraduates, high-achieving high school students and me — were encouraged to only speak in Spanish, too.
I was out of my element, to say the least. If the intensive course could be compared to a group workout class, it was high-impact Zumba, and I was the latecomer with no more cardio experience than a few Jumping Jacks.
As strenuous as learning a new language felt, however, the mental workout had more value than I realized. I wasn’t just broadening my worldview; I was helping my brain in powerful ways.
According to Mia Nacamulli in the June 2015 TED-Ed video “The benefits of a bilingual brain,” bilingual adults’ brains may actually look different from those who know only one language. Apparently the process of learning and then navigating between languages — especially as an adult — literally changes the brain.
While your brain’s development may be in your rearview mirror, learning a second language at a later stage of life has its benefits. Nacamulli said the multilingual brain contains a higher density of gray matter, which contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses. Essentially, there is more activity in certain areas of the brain when engaging in a second language. Further, learning a second language can delay the onset of such diseases as dementia and Alzheimer’s by five years.
A 2014 study from Northwestern University stated that learning a second language later in life could help you process information more efficiently and easily than someone who is monolingual. That’s because “the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which to ignore,” said Viorica Marian, a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Communication, in a statement.
Nacamulli said it’s a type of workout that triggers more activity in, and could potentially strengthen, the region of the brain that plays a significant role in executive function, which includes skills like problem-solving, changing from one task to another and staying focused.
That increased focus makes learning a second language as an adult even more attractive. Particularly since the value of bilingualism stretches beyond how employees carry out their work. Framed as an opportunity to sharpen thinking, improve memory and aid brain health, I’d find it hard to imagine there was an adult learner uninterested in learning a new language — despite the mental heavy lifting.
Learning a second language won’t make any of us smarter per se, but from where I sit, the prospect of helping my brain work better than it does — for work and for life — is incentive enough for me to crack open my Spanish book again and consider investing in some classes.