Studying a language

Why Study a Foreign Language ?

As our planet becomes more globalized and people are travelling more than ever before, It doesn’t make sense to remain monolingual and there are clear advantages as to why you should study another language.

From my own personal experience of working as a doctor for a few months on busy wards and coming across Greek, Turkish, Italian and Japanese patients who could not speak good English, made me realize the importance of me learning languages but also using them to communicate extremely important information.

Case of MrX from Italy

2 weeks ago mr X a 67year old man from Sicily came to Malta to visit his son on holiday, not knowing he was going to be on the island for a long time he decided not to take up a travel insurance policy (as he considered this a waste of money) so he booked a flight and came over. On his second day in Malta while eating out he got severe chest pain and was sent to hospital to get a check up.

There was one problem, he wasn’t able to understand English or speak and English and could only communicate in italian. Luckly having Italian speaking nurses saved the man’s life as we could get a good medical history from and administer the right medications.

This is just one case that highlights the importance of learning languages.

Case of MissJ from Japan

While in Malta studying English at a local language school, This Japanese lady fell ill and was bleeding. She was rushed to hospital and being unable to communicate well she struggles to explain what had happened to her. One of the A&E doctors being Chinese and able to speak both mandarin and Japanese managed to take a history that was vital to uncover an underlying disease that was plaguing this young Japanese student.

Although we don’t work in hospitals we however do work with people, travel and exchange interactions while we hangout. Knowing a new language enables us to create new connections and helps us to explore new opportunities. However what are the true benefits of learning a new language ?

Beneficial for our brains

Language plays a vital role in the human brain, in fact we have a specific region in our brains just dedicated to language its self. The two main areas involved in language production and comprehension include BROCA’s and WERNICKE’s area.

Broca’s area is an area in the left side of our brains related to production of language output, while wernicke’s area is an area in the posterior aspect of the brain related to comprehension. Studies on older people who had damage in this location in the brain presented with either inability to comprehend speech or produce speech. This shows how intimate language is to human nature and is what actually defines human interaction.

Interestingly enough, studies in older adults indicated that language learning was also beneficial to the physical remodeling of older brains and actually resulted in structural changes. This has been confirmed by Lee and Tzeng (2016), who claim that foreign language learning results in effective structural as well as functional connectivity in the brain due to neural plasticity. In this study it was found that the effective connectivity due to foreign language learning enhances the capacity for language processing and general executive control by reorganizing neural circuits, in simple terms learning languages helped to restructure the brain and produce a stronger more flexible mind keeping it younger for longer.

Research has also shown that studying a new language has a positive impact because it helps to alter both white and gray matter of our brains( Bellander et al., 2016). In one particular study by Schlegel et al. (2012), 11 English speakers (with an average age of 20 years) who took a 9-month intensive course in written and spoken Modern Standard Chinese and 16 controls who did not study a language reported that the plasticity of the white matter played a significant role in adult language learning.

Although adult learners showed progressive changes in white matter, associated with traditional language areas , the most important changes appeared in frontal lobe region, which is not generally involved in current neural models of language processing.

One other study by Tyler et al. (2010) showed that there is a preserved syntactic processing across the life span of humans, possibly as a result of a shift from a primarily left hemisphere fronto-temporal system to a more bilateral functional language network.

Basically speaking these studies show us that language learning is a mental workout out and is a beneficial addition to our healthy brain aging prevention strategy.

Opens Up New Opportunities

If you want to work in a foreign country that doesn’t speak any English, its going to be hard to do so if you don’t speak the home language. Lets say you are a professional interested in living or working in Japan or South Korea? Of course you can always go and teach English, however if you want a career move and are looking for job opportunities on platforms such as linkedin, having a language under your belt makes you a more desirable candidate than one who needs the training and cant read or speak or understand what’s being talked about.

As our planet becomes more globalized and more connected via online networks, we are increasingly moving countries trying to work and find various opportunities which might not only provide a better work life balance or quality of life but also help us explore new experiences.

Coming from a small island nation in the Mediterranean I strongly feel that language has helped me to engage more with other people and cultures and has opened up new travel destinations.

Helps You Make New Friends

Of course what’s the point of learning a language if you don’t use it? its like buying a car or a fresh pair of sneakers and storing them away just to feel as if you’ve accomplished something without ever using it in real life.

Learning a language can help you connect with others, social networks such as Facebook, linkedin and language exchange apps like HiNative help to speak directly to natives in their original tongue and at the same time help you to learn and utilize the vocabulary you are studying.

Making friends can also open up a new world of opportunities, it might help you find a new travel companion, explore a city and learn more from that experience and also make your stay abroad less touristy.

Having been to japan and being able to connect with locals created a whole different experience to just going there as a tourist and just exploring the place from a tourist’s point of view.