Want to strengthen your brain for the fall semester? Try learning a second language.


Wikimedia commons: Stellapark025

Tessa Morton

Americans are largely monolingual, and that’s not a good thing. During the recent immigration debate (which is definitely not what this opinion piece is about), I heard the same, dare I say, ignorant phrase: if you’re in America, you should speak English. On its face, the argument makes sense. In America, English is the language that most people speak, so if you want to be understood, that certainly would make sense. However, why would hearing foreign languages ever be considered offensive? Speaking multiple languages is a strength that should be valued, and bilingualism is a skill that should be revered and aspired to, rather than jeered at.

Despite an increasing global economy and increasingly affordable international travel opportunities, America has seen language learning decline. According to a 2017 report produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a much smaller percentage of Americans speak a second language than citizens in other nations across the world. This is a worrying trend.

The study states “the ability to understand, speak, read and write in world languages, in addition to English is critical to success in business, research, and international relations in the twenty-first century.”

The Washington Times referenced a 2015 Pew research report that found the lack of bilingualism or multilingualism in the US meant Americans were lacking a key 21st century skill.

“…we risk being left out of any conversation that does not take place in English,” the study said.

Michael Nugent, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense language and National Security Education Office, explained how this could impact America’s national security. He told The Washington Times, not only is it important that Americans working in the military and the foreign service understand the culture of those they work with, but they also need to have a more than merely adequate grasp of the language.

“Some of the teaching that happened in the past was pretty bad,” Nugent told The Washington Times, “[We are] trying to get students to learn effectively so they’re not only able to order a beer. We’ve been talking about this emergency now for 10-15 years.”

Experts argue that the problem is that America does not have enough good language teachers . I am not so sure, however, that this is where the issue lies. Although it may be a part of it, I do know that good teaching is not the key to language learning. I know because I was an English language teacher for five years. There are many aspects to successfully learning a language, but the first step is ensuring that it is something you actually, actively want to do. Learners need to be personally motivated and need to be able to see and understand the value.

One reason why I feel Americans lack that key motivation, is that Americans do not have the same travel culture that those living in Europe, for example, do have. America is much more geographically isolated, and our country is so large that we find it easier to travel within our own borders than to spend thousands of dollars to cross the ocean. Not only that, when Americans do travel abroad there is a reliance and often an expectation that tourist destinations will have a high level of English proficiency amongst the locals. During my years of travel abroad, I met many Americans who were shocked when faced with a local who did not understand even basic English. Also, when Americans do travel, it is not for a period of time long enough for there to be an opportunity, or need, to truly immerse themselves in the language.

Another major issue is that Americans have become the victims of their own success and influence. America has been the most influential nation, both economically and culturally, for decades, and this success has driven the expectation that countries around the world would learn English to keep up with us. It is not an incorrect assumption. Across Asia, Europe and Africa, English language learning is a part of the school curriculum, and as a result English proficiency in many countries across the world is incredibly high. Unfortunately, as influence and power shifts, this too may start to change. During my final years teaching English in South Korea, many parents were far more concerned with their children learning Chinese than English.

If so many people speak and understand, even a modicum of English, doesn’t that mean there is less of a need for Americans to learn other languages in order to be understood?

Is that the only reason to learn another language? To be understood? I would argue not. In fact, language learning has a profound effect on the brain, improving cognitive abilities and memory skills, and lowering the risks of brain aging diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The Guardian reported on a 2012 Swedish study that used brain scans to monitor what happens when someone learns a second language. They discovered a visible effect on the brain, with specific parts of the brain actually increasing in size. Some languages are so different from our own, and have such unique characteristics that it actually requires a rewiring of the brain in order to be able to hear and comprehend the sounds being used. One example is the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sound in the English language. When an English language speaker hears these sounds, two regions of the brain are activated, but when a Japanese language speaker hears either of these sounds, only one region is activated, hence the difficulty some language learners have with differentiating between the two. Actively learning a new language, and speaking it fluently, can literally strengthen our brain by pushing it to think in new ways.

So, if the argument is true that Americans do not have enough high skilled teachers, does that mean we are doomed to lack the multilingual proficiency that many others around the world have achieved? I don’t think so. Today there are countless ways to learn a language on your own. There are applications that can help you work through flashcards, and applications that focus on improving listening skills. If you are learning a language in order to strengthen your brain and expand your cultural and linguistic knowledge, rather than to sit for a test, you can focus on the key sounds and vocabulary, and move on to more complex grammar skills at your own pace, and when you feel you are ready.

One method that has been developed by a successful polyglot and author of Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner, is to first focus on accessing the language through sound and pronunciation. Learning the pronunciation of the “sounds” and working on understanding the alphabet and phonetics is the first step. From there you can start learning the most common words, the building blocks for later work on sentence structure. Wyner believes there are 625 most common words that form a great foundation for understanding a language. After that, you can start learning grammar, using the words that you have, to make full sentences. From there you can transition to speaking and writing as much as you can.

Wyner agrees with a recent BBC article that argues that 1,000 words would be needed to speak a language. Wyner said that a vocabulary of 1,000 words would allow you to understand 75 percent of the language. We cannot forget that it is incredibly difficult for a language learner to ever know as many words in their second language as they do in their first. The BBC reported that a native speaker may know as many as 15,000-20,000 word families, whereas a second language learner may struggle to learn more than 2,000-5,000 words, and is more likely to understand and use around 1,000.

With language learning, perfect fluency does not have to be the end game. Instead, the act of learning itself can be a valuable skill, and whatever proficiency you are able to accomplish will be worthwhile.

For great language learning flashcards, check out ANKI flashcards, which specialize in space repetition for long term language learning.