Daily: Celebrate language learning

Kristen Daily

I am sure that many of you have read or heard a multitude of reasons why learning another language is a good idea, and I’m here to reiterate this point and offer some practical benefits of doing so.

I have to admit that I do love learning languages; this pushed me to study abroad in Germany in high school and to pursue learning foreign languages in college. I wish I could say I was truly multilingual, but I cannot. Sadly, I hardly remember the Spanish and French I learned in high school, and when I try to read Russian, I probably still sound like a kindergartener trying to sound the words out.

Yet despite my somewhat limited knowledge of these languages, I was surprised and grateful that I had learned them when I traveled in Berlin this summer. I am fairly fluent in German, so I was not nervous about living in the country for a month, but I had not expected to hear or use Spanish, French or Russian, all of which I used throughout my trip abroad.

The necessity of learning another language is growing, and I think it can bring many opportunities.

Barbara J. King, writer for NPR, explored the views of one author, Jared Diamond, on bilingualism and multilingualism and some of the cognitive benefits language learning can offer. Her story “Jared Diamond, A New Guinea Campfire, And Why We Should Want To Speak Five Languages” reviews Jared Diamond’s writing and his stories about living in New Guinea, where more than 800 languages, not to be confused with dialects, are spoken in a population of about 6 million people. Here multilingualism is not only celebrated, but necessary (i.e. for trade, negotiations, and even finding and communicating with a spouse).

King went on to compare this to rates of bilingualism and multilingualism in the United States, explaining that it is estimated that about 18 percent of Americans are at least bilingual. She says that while this is not insignificant, the reality is that most of these people eventually slip into a monolingual usage of language.

She claims that multilingualism isn’t welcomed in the United States. For example, she pointed out that when a Spanish version of the national anthem was released in 2005, there was a public outcry and the translations on the U.S. State Department website disappeared overnight.

After discussing these comparisons between New Guinea and the United States, she began to discuss Diamond’s views in particular. Diamond, the author of the book King discussed, is a geographer and evolutionary biologist. He feels that people’s world views are expanded when they learn another language, and that this is a good thing. A practical point that he raises, which surprised me, is that being bilingual or multilingual can help lessen the chance of Alzheimer’s.

King said, “One example comes from a Canadian study of 400 people with a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms were first experienced by bilingual people in the sample at an age 4 or 5 years older than by monolingual people. Significantly, given that education is usually associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s symptoms, the bilingual patients in the study were less educated than their monolingual counterparts.

“Bilingual patients,” Diamond concludes, “suffer less cognitive impairment than do monolingual patients with the same degree of brain atrophy: bilingualism offers partial protection against the consequence of brain atrophy.” The reason? The brain of a bilingual person “is constantly having to decide” to speak, think, or comprehend sounds in one language or the other.

The fact that bilingual and multilingual brains are more active also contributes to a number of cognitive benefits, including better attention and task-switching abilities, better adaptation to environmental changes, less cognitive decline with age, better memory, visual-spatial skills, and some say, even creativity. A more in-depth discussion of these studies can be found in the article: “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual,” which was published by the Dana Foundation, an organization that supports brain research and was written by Viorica Marian, Ph.D., and Anthony Shook, researchers for the foundation.

In addition to these cognitive benefits, there are many social advantages that come with being bilingual or multilingual. The opportunity to experience and learn about another culture in the native language of that place is priceless. Being bilingual could give you the opportunity to communicate with someone you may otherwise not be able to talk to. Overall, learning another language presents a world of opportunities, and is necessary for broadening your worldview. So if you ever have the chance to learn another language or travel abroad, seize it — it may lead you places you couldn’t have imagined.


Kristen Daily is a junior in English from Orange City, Iowa.