Why learning languages makes you smarter

PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease

You know what being bilinguish can do for your social life. It can also do great things for your brain. Image via Wikipedia

You knew learning languages was good for you: for your vocabulary, for your social life, for your job prospects, and for your chances of getting an A in school.  But did you know how good it is?  Several recent studies have come out pointing to the benefits of language learning.  Here’s a roundup of some of the most interesting.

Babies can tell the difference between different languages before they can speak themselves. Being exposed to more than one language from birth gives you the ability to distinguish between different languages when your monolingual peers can’t, and you retain that ability longer, according to this ScienceNOW article.

Being bilingual makes you multitask better. This Science Daily article compares speaking more than one language to using a “mental gymnasium.”

Bilingualism helps people throughout life, especially when it comes to brain function and memory.  Speaking two languages helps protect your memory

…and it allows you to stave off Alzheimer’s for longer.

Your language skills are connected to your ability to understand basic math concepts. This Education Week article explores the way ability to count and recognize numbers are related to ability to use words.

And, yes, the study with the results you’ve been waiting for: Bilingual people score higher on IQ tests.

What’s the best part of learning a new language for you?  Vote here.

About bilinguish
Bilinguish is a place for teachers, students, angloparlantes, hispanoparlantes, and polyglots extraordinaire. We connect you with original content and web resources to make language learning more interesting and more interactive. http://bilinguish.com

14 Responses to Why learning languages makes you smarter

  1. The brain is a muscle and, like other muscles, it gets stronger with use.

    Learning languages is also good for ordering coffee and tea in foreign countries. You’d be surprised at how many countries use different words instead of the tried and tested ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’. 🙂

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  3. sergei says:

    so how can it make u smart

    • bilinguish says:

      Speaking two (or more) languages is a workout for your brain that makes it easier for you to multitask, remember things, and stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. It is even associated with higher IQ and the ability to learn even more languages. What do you think- what’s the best reason for you?

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  6. NotsoheavyD says:

    That’s funny because that wasn’t my experience at university. I might as well point out I’m a math/science student so I wanted to take mostly math and science. When I first went and my uni had to, just had to shove a language down my figurative throat for my own good. So as you can expect from my previous sentences I didn’t get to see this benefit. My grades did not improve, funny how that happened. Instead I actually became less intelligent, measurably so. To be clear my math score on my SATs were in the 90th percentile.(Actually high 90’s) After all that nonsense I some how ended up below the 50th percentile in arithmetic when I was tested late in my college career. Other scores were similarly depressed. To be clear I got tested because I was doing so badly in all my courses, including math and science. Before that monstrosity was inflicted on me I actually did well in those courses.

    Actually to give further evidence to my position that languages injured me I went back to college years later and took just math science. (Things like physics(with calc) and chemistry.) I took the stuff I actually wanted to take, not the courses some busy bodied pencil pushing administrator decided we had to take in a one size fits all mentality. How did I do in those courses that many students consider killer courses? I got A’s and I understood enough to get in the mid 30’s on the MCAT. (I would have had no chance of doing that while being crippled by the language requirement.) To say I’m bitter at all those that love to force themselves on unsuspecting students while largely turning a blind eye to someone like me that had much of their mind shattered is an understatement.(Since after my testing in university, a pitiful plea for help, the adminstration’s position was pretty much “Sucks to be you, deal with it bitch”)

    • bilinguish says:

      Interesting perspective, D. Do you think it was something about the study of languages itself that made you score lower on tests, or the stress and unpleasantness of being forced to do coursework that you didn’t like or value?

      • NotsoheavyD says:

        I’ve thought about it a bit and I think it was a lot of things. I mean yes part of it was being forced to study something I wasn’t interested in so that didn’t help. Also it seems to me that languages are a field where it’s a bit difficult to study on your own and I’m not the friendliest person out there.(The whole point is to talk to others and I’m definitely an introvert. So basically I was being punished for being myself.) However if I had to put my finger on it I’d have to say it was all the lying. As far as I could tell the staff at my school didn’t believe half the things they were saying about languages and my mind simply rebelled given the situation and having all that claptrap spewed at it.

        I probably should clarify why I think they were liars so I will. I had heard that languages were very important. So given this it was very weird that language professors didn’t actually teach the courses. (I got stuck taking 9 semesters of language due to retaking course and switching languages tracks. I saw 2 professors but only one of those was a language professor) Instead we got grad students. In other words these important classes were being taught by the least qualified people that the school could get which makes no sense. One thing that has stuck with me through the years is the advice on the proper way to learn a language, IE just go with it and don’t try to translate everything into english on the fly. You’ll never learn the language that way and it’s too slow, you have to try to think in the target language. That would have been ok advice except for the fact I heard it from a math professor after I had been taking languages for semesters.(And not from the grad students doing the courses on day one) So guess what I had been trying? Yes, trying to translate everything on the fly into english and failing miserably.(Of course since I’m not a language person I could never figure out why I had so much trouble. Hearing that from the math prof it explained it all.) It would have been nice to get somebody competent to tell me not to use a learning strategy that was doomed to failure on day one but that would probably require competent pedagogy.(And not having the language professor do whatever the hell it was they do and have the grad students do the courses.)

        Of course my position that they were liars wasn’t helped when I heard the excuse why we students had to take 4 semesters of 1 language. The supposed reason was to become fluent. Unfortunately on one day a language professor managed to show up to shill the study abroad program. What did she say the reason to do it was? Simple, if you don’t do this program you’ll never be fluent. So basically she had told me that the reason the administration had given on why I had to take so much language was 100 percent pure horse excrement. Let me repeat that. The administration said we had to take 4 semesters in a single language, more study than any other requirement, to gain fluency and at least one language professor admitted this wasn’t going to actually work. As far as I can say you can’t get lied to so much, so often and not have it have an effect on you. I simply stopped caring and my mind shut down after being lied to so much. My mind simply refused to listen to any more of this, they were lying before and they’re probably lying now and there’s no point in trying.

  7. SMSgt Mac says:

    If we accept the assertion that learning a second language has benefits as claimed, even with awareness that most medical research ‘findings’ very well may be ‘wrong’ (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/), I would think that bi/multi-lingualism is but one path to achieving the same benefits listed.
    The bottom line: Your noggin’ — use it or lose it.

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  9. Christo Fogelberg says:

    This is very interesting! Until I looked for it, I did not realise there was so much evidence for the benefits of being bi/multi-lingual and I linked here in a recent blog post because this is a fantastic resource on exactly that topic!

    As well as the intellectual benefits I think there’s another though, and that purely personal and psychological. For me, I find that studying Mandarin brings me so much happiness – happiness at new knowledge learnt, and also happiness at seeing new things with new eyes.

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