Why You Should and How to Learn a New Language


Lesson Overview

In this lesson, you will learn about the importance and benefits of being fluent in more than one language. You will also learn some tips for learning new languages.

Pause and Think: “How do we communicate so well with language?”

Ese! Na gode! Dalu! Merci! Asante! In Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, French and Swahili, respectively, the words above all mean “Thank you!” Being able to communicate in a particular language is a lot more than knowing a couple of words out of a dictionary. Yet, we do it so well, especially in our native languages. How do we learn and communicate with languages?

Benefits of Having a Multilingual Brain

If you are fluent in more than one language, you belong to the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority. Apart from having an easier time communicating with people from different cultures, knowing two or more languages means that your brain may look and work differently than those of monolingual individuals.

multilingual

Photo Credit: MumAbroad

What does it mean to know a language? Language ability is typically measured in two active parts which are speaking and writing. It is also measured in two passive parts which are listening and reading.

If an individual has almost equal abilities in two languages, he or she is called a balanced bilingual. However, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in rather varying proportions.

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children. Some of these advantages include increased attentive focus and high levels of thinking and awareness. 

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had gotten five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests. They also had greater attention focus, distraction-resistance, decision-making, judgement and responsiveness to feedback.

This benefits are not limited to children but are also experienced by adults who pick up a second language. The major reason why children seem to be better at learning languages is because they are less conscious of themselves and thus, more willing to make mistakes. 

Tips For Learning New Languages

Most people believe that you can’t learn a new language once you’ve gone past a certain age. Well, recent research has already debunked this idea. Others believe that you’re either born with the language-learning gene, or you aren’t.

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Photo Credit: S3Bubble

Over half of the planet speaks more than one language. This means that being able to speak only one language or what we might call a “mother-tongue” is a consequence of culture, not biology or birth. So when people fail at language learning, it’s not because they don’t have the right genes. It’s because they are learning in an ineffective way.

Here are a few important tips to help you get better at language learning:

1. Embrace mistakes and speak from day one

We learn by making mistakes. As children, we are expected to make mistakes, but as we grow into adults, mistakes tend to become a taboo. We are more likely to say, “I can’t drive” or “I can’t speak Yoruba,” rather than, “I haven’t learnt that yet.”

embarrased-learning

Photo Credit: GhanaCulturePolitics

When it comes to learning languages, one of the best things you can do is to lay emphasis on communication rather than on perfection. Instead of waiting until you’re ready to say “Excuse me sir, could you direct me to the nearest bathroom?”, courageously walk up to a native speaker around you and say something like “Bathroom, where?” People will be more forgiving than you think, when it’s obvious to them that you’re a learner.

2. Focus first on the most common words used to communicate

You absolutely do not need to know all the words of a language to speak it. In fact, you most likely do not know all the words of your mother tongue either. In English, for example, just 300 words make up 65% of all the written material, and we use those words a lot when speaking English. It’s the case with every other language as well.

Moreover, there are usually words you will recognize from a language you already know that sound like and mean the same thing in the language you’re learning. Such words are called cognates and usually have almost identical linguistic derivation e.g. English father, German Vater, and Latin pater

For instance, French has many words in common with English, with only different pronunciations. Hausa, as well also has about one-fourth of words that come from Arabic. Languages that seem very different can have heaps of very familiar vocabulary.

3. Immerse yourself in the language

Even if you aren’t in a location where there are native speakers of the language, you can still get yourself immersed in the language. If you can afford it, you can watch videos and listen to audios in the language online. You could also read books or news written in the language, and skype or video-chat with native speakers online. Benny Lewis gives a whole lot of tips and tools in this article that can help you get immersed in the language of your choice.

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Photo Credit: Insider Monkey

The bottomline is that when you’re first starting to learn a new language, you need to spend time listening to and watching people talk in the language. You might want to find a learning partner if need be, talk to yourself whenever possible. Just dive in!

Lesson Summary

Being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages. Some of the benefits are physical such as higher density of the grey matter that contain most of your brain’s neurons and synapses. In fact, bilinguals experience more activity in certain brain regions when engaging a second language.

The heightened exercise a multilingual brain receives throughout its life can also help delay the onset of memory-related diseases as one ages. It was once thought that learning more than one language could slow one’s mental development but more recent and accurate studies now tell us otherwise.

bilingual-brain-benefits

Photo Credit: Sommer+Sommer

Juggling between different languages makes your brain more healthy, complex, creative and actively engaged. Even if you didn’t have the good fortune of learning a second language as a child, it’s never too late to do yourself a favour and make the linguistic leap.

Remember, when it comes to our brains, a little exercise can go a long way. So, challenge yourself, pick up a new language and give your brain a workout.

Happy Learning!

Lesson Discussion

What do you think about the ideas that were shared in this lesson about language learning? Are you among the world’s populace that speak more than one language, and what languages do you speak? Share your thoughts here!

Confused about anything that was mentioned in the lesson? Ask a question!


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