I bet you’ve been asked so many times, you can automatically trot out a familiar list of reasons:

Why are you so interested in learning a foreign language?

Perhaps you patiently explain how a second language is so important for standing-out amongst the ever-increasing number of fellow graduates? Or maybe you touch on your desire to travel and the ease with which speaking the local lingo will help you get about?

You might mention the importance of second-languages for academic opportunities abroad? Or for the advantage it gives you in business communications in established or emerging markets.

And so on and so forth.

Of course, all of these justifications are perfectly reasonable. But we’re not interested in ‘reasonable’ in this article.

To celebrate International Student’s Day (Thursday, November 17), we’re going to focus on some of the lesser-known, more unusual and even completely inadvertent advantages of becoming proficient in a second language.

So, forget about career advancement, academic opportunities and the ability to ask for directions in a foreign country, this is about those life-changing benefits which you didn’t even know existed.

It protects the brain in later life

We all accept that staying physically active is the best way of maintaining our heart, lungs and other vital organs as we get older. Not to mention the benefits of gentle exercise on our joints and muscles.

But who puts the same amount of effort into maintaining their mind? Languages learners, that’s who.

Researchers at York University, Toronto, found that learning a second language can delay the onset of alzheimer’s and dementia by as much as three to four years when compared to patients who were only monolingual.

Although the maximum benefits were derived from lifelong second-language speakers, overall fluency, frequency of use, levels of literacy and grammatical accuracy all contributed to making bilingual brains stronger and more resilient in later life.

It creates a whole ‘new you’

A bit of a weird one this.

How many of ‘you’ are there? Well, some researchers believe that fluency in a foreign language does something a bit odd to our personality. It kinda’ creates a new one.

Many second language speakers have reported that their attitudes, outlooks and general demeanour change as they switch from one language to another. And there’s some research which seems to back this up.

In 1998, a researcher at the University of Illinois spent a year-and-a-half conducting studies with Parisians whose parents had emigrated from Portugal, but who spoke both French and Portuguese fluently.

The researcher found that the participants switched from one persona to another as they were asked to complete various tasks in their dual languages. Sometimes the changes were striking - from “angry, hip suburbanite” in French, to “patient” and “well-mannered” when speaking Portuguese.

Other anecdotal evidence has suggested that many speakers of two languages find it easier to display certain desired characteristics by altering the language they are using at the time.

It improves seemingly-unrelated skills

You’ve probably said something similar yourself at some point: “I’m not really a [insert common academic subject here]-kind-of-person”.

But research suggests that thinking of ourselves as limited to a specific skill-set - verbal or mathematical, problem-solving or creative - is completely misunderstanding the nature of the brain.

Researchers at Washington University tested both monolingual and bilingual study-participants on their abilities to solve arithmetic problems. They found that although both groups solved ‘familiar’ problems with the same levels of accuracy, bilinguals beat their one-language-using peers on questions which contained a ‘novel’ component.

With the use of fMRI scans, the scientists determined that the basal ganglia, a region of the brain which takes information and prioritises it before passing it onto the prefrontal cortex, had been made more efficient in the brains of those who had learnt a second language.

In other words, learning a new language had unforeseen benefits in processing information (in this case mathematical equations) which had seemed completely unrelated.

It lets you see the world in an entirely new way

Different languages use different structures to express similar ideas. This should be of no surprise for anyone reading an italki.com article.

But the implications of this are in fact very surprising.

A psycholinguist at Lancaster University, UK, tested study participants who were fluent in either English or German to see whether using the respective languages altered the way they perceived events portrayed on short video clips.

The differences in the languages, the study hypothesised, would lead participants to either favour an interpretation based on whether the action was ambiguous or goal-oriented.

And this was indeed the case. However, when the participants were fluent in both languages, their perceptions of the events on screen could be altered by having them focus on just one of the languages at a time (by asking them to repeat long strings of numbers in one or the other language).

Bilingual participants, therefore, had the ability to switch between two different perspectives on events just by focusing on the use of one of their languages.

Hero image by Unsplash (CC 0)