Language Learning: It’s Good For You

My German studies have been advancing at a steady pace and recently I’ve noticed improvements in my reading. It’s actually been exhilarating to read stuff and watch films now that the language is starting to make more sense. I had a small revelation when I watched a German documentary I had had on my hard drive for ages, something like what Moses McCormick speaks about in one of his videos. I’m not doing composition yet and other work-related stuff does not really allow that right now, but I’ll begin soon enough.

To distract myself from work even further, I picked up the Innovative Language Learning Japanese set. (This is partly the fault of Mr. McCormick whose “Level Up” videos make Asian languages look like great fun.) In it, the authors list reasons for learning Japanese and the top reason they cite is that learning a second language is good for your brain. This is good news, because I have no serious reason to learn Japanese. In short, they say that it protects you from Alzheimer’s and makes you smarter. The memory gets a workout and your attention span grows. They go on to say that it also aids critical thinking and creativity.

As luck would have it, an article giving these claims scientific backing appeared recently. The BBC picked it up today and I dug up the original as well. It has the fetching title “Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages.” It has to do with how the brain deals with complex visual motion and sound. I won’t pretend to be a brain expert, so let me quote the article:

We found that adolescent bilinguals, listening to the speech syllable [da], encoded the stimulus more robustly than age-matched monolinguals. Specifically, bilinguals showed enhanced encoding of the fundamental frequency, a feature known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects. This enhancement was associated with executive function advantages. Thus, through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound. This study provides biological evidence for system-wide neural plasticity in auditory experts that facilitates a tight coupling of sensory and cognitive functions.

The scientists relate this to musicians and note that something similar goes on in their auditory processing. The executive function advantages, to put this into language I can understand, seem to be related to the way in which bilinguals and musicians are able to put some of the processes used to discern relevant information from the bombardment of noise on autopilot, having conditioned themselves to do so, and thus they have a greater facility for focusing their attention on, for want of a better word, thinking. Or perhaps one could say that they have refined their sensory filters — a term I just made up — to the point where they can concentrate on the relevant information more efficiently. In short, they are smarter information processors. I wonder if reversing the process and creating speech synthesizers adapted to language learning would be possible?

This also relates to something I’ve often thought about while studying languages. When one is engaged in study, it often seems like one is not studying in any strict sense of the word, but rather trying to get used to the language. “Conditioning” might be close to the term I’m looking for, but the English word escapes me. The Finnish word that comes to mind is “totuttautua.” There is a slight nuance in the Finnish which tells me that the very process of getting used to something involves not being completely in control of the process or perhaps being in control of the situation only vicariously. In terms of language learning, it might be viewed as a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization or graduated exposure therapy. And once we go there and begin to look at what the article calls “sensory enrichment” involving languages or music, we are back in that ancient medical paradigm that saw music and poetry as forms of medical intervention.

As I said, I’m not a brain scientist or qualified to draw conclusions from such speculations. That unfortunate fact aside, it’s nevertheless nice to hear the good news. I’ve put my brain through a lot, but based on these findings I’ve apparently also been taking care of it. This also means that there is now no reason not to study languages and if anyone ever tells you otherwise you can point to this article. It’s science.

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