Many scholars believe that learning languages is easier when we are young. Famous linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the acquisition of language is innate to humans, with the function already present in our brains and the optimal time for language acquisition being between ages 3 and 10.
Graziella Abreu, Spanish teacher at Modern Language Institute & Tutoring Services Ltd. on Walkers Road, is evidence of this, having moved from Brazil to Spain when she was 6, and only needing three months in which to master the new language she now teaches.
Chomsky’s optimal learning age does not bode well for those of us who are older, and the neurological and social benefits of learning languages may be greater among those who learn a new language when they are younger. However, older dogs can learn new tricks and still reap benefits, depending on how far we immerse ourselves into secondary languages.
Some of the benefits of learning a second language later in life are obvious: international vacations are more the norm nowadays, exposing us to foreign languages, and international business also affords us this luxury (or difficulty) in a corporate environment. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the advantages run much deeper.
Learning languages affects our brains. Young adults who regularly use two languages show increased attention spans and levels of concentration, and students who study foreign languages tend to score higher on standardized tests in non-linguistic subjects than their monolingual counterparts.
Challenging the brain to memorize words, negotiate meaning and communicate in different languages improves the functionality of the brain and can also build multitasking skills. When acquiring new language, we are also forced to focus on important information and exclude irrelevant content, helping many to become more perceptive.
Studies have shown that bilingual Alzheimer’s patients who spoke both languages regularly throughout their lives were diagnosed later in life than those who spoke only one language. Many believe this is due to the brain getting a good mental workout, having to assess many words in order to arrive at the correct combination.
Improve our first language
Naturally, many of us speak English without thinking too much about its structure and rules. However, while learning how to form foreign language sentences, we are forced to consider why sentences are structured in the way they are. This may inadvertently improve our communication skills in our native language.
Conversing in the first language of overseas clients is good for relationship building, and some bilingual job applicants command a higher wage. Chinese, German, Italian and Russian language skills may garner a 4 percent wage increase, French a 2.7 percent increase and Spanish a 1.7 percent increase, according to a study published by consulting group LECG. If evidence of higher concentration and productivity in bilinguals is true, an even higher wage increase may also make up for money spent on acquiring the language.
Higher wages are also affected by higher demand. Shortages of translators, interpreters and other staff with foreign language skills have been noted by a report of the U.S. General Accounting Office, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 46 percent increase in the employment of interpreters and translators between 2012 and 2022.
CILT and InterAct International released a study showing that small and medium-size enterprises, using European samples, which have a languages strategy and invest in staff with language skills, are shown to be able to achieve 44 percent more export sales than those that don’t. The same study showed that while English is the world business language, there is a also need for German, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and Russian.
Using our first language is usually preferred, and due to the widespread use of English, entirely possible even overseas. However, using the local language allows us an insight into different cultures and ways of life, while allowing for more confident travel in areas where English is not widely spoken.
Abreu explained, “For me languages go hand in hand with knowledge. Once you can communicate with other people, you can understand more about the way they live and how they think. This helps you to understand more about the world that we live in.”
How to choose
Some may choose in adulthood to learn a language they began in school, while others choose one which will help them move up the corporate ladder. Whatever the motivation, “In order to learn a new language, you need to be hungry to learn and be passionate about it,” said Abreu.
If you already know two languages, why stop there? Abreu said, “When you already know two languages, or more, it is indeed easier to learn a new one. Your brain is more open to understanding how languages work, your mouth is more trained to create new accents and tones, and your ears are sharper to catch new sounds.”