Language and the Brain
The way the brain processes and is affected by language has been a subject of study for decades. Language is considered to be one of the key traits that sets humans apart from every other member of the animal kingdom. Without the capacity for communication, we would not have reached the cultural, intellectual, and technological heights we have. It's only logical that we would want to understand language and its influence on us.
Because language is such a pervasive part of our existence, it's easy to take it for granted. More than that, many of us may not even be aware of the real relationship between language and the brain. From the time we begin talking as toddlers, our brains begin forming complex connections which deepen our understanding of the world around us. The same way learning our native or first language broadens our intellect, learning foreign languages has measurable effects on our health, specifically on our cognitive abilities.
Why You Should Learn Foreign Languages
You're familiar with common reasons for taking language classes, one of the most common being travel. For example, if you plan to visit Spain, taking Spanish lessons before you go will help you find your way around, shop with ease, and communicate with the people who live there. Some people who learn foreign languages do so because it puts them in touch with their ancestry, or with distant relatives in other countries. Not to mention, learning foreign languages can just be fun for those who enjoy the challenges it presents.
But there's much more to language study than recreation, or learning a few common German phrases as a hobby. Scientists at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, have discovered a direct correlation between learning foreign languages and the prevention, or at least delay, of cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Those who have family members who suffer from cognitive disorders like these are more likely to develop the conditions themselves. For this reason, more and more people are seeking ways to prevent Alzheimer's and other conditions that bring about mental decline. Activities that keep the brain active and engaged can help prevent dementia and other disorders. Games such as crosswords, Sudoku, and other logic puzzles do for the brain what lifting weights does for the body. And now studies are showing that learning a language can have just as much benefit for brain function.
Learning Foreign Languages at an Early Age
Although cognitive disorders such as these are associated with the elderly, it's not necessary to wait until middle age or later to learn foreign languages. In fact, the earlier a person starts, the better. The workout principle applies here as well. The more you exercise when you're young, the healthier you will be later in life. When kids study Spanish, their brains stay healthier longer than the brains of those who never study a second language. And it doesn't have to be Spanish; that just happens to be one of the most commonly offered elective classes in middle and high school along with French and German.
The cognitive benefits of learning foreign languages aren't restricted to attempts to prevent Alzheimer's, though. Bilingual kids perform better in school, which means they can get into better colleges, which can lead them to better, higher-paying jobs in adulthood. Not to mention, Spanish, Japanese, or German lessons can help young people secure careers in international business or global corporations that have large presences in the United States. The incentive to learn foreign languages is extensive.
Budget Cuts Make Learning Foreign Languages Difficult
While benefits of learning Spanish and other languages should be apparent, many young people will miss out on the opportunity to learn foreign languages in both high school and in college due to budget cuts.
Schools have found it necessary to cut many elective programs over the years, starting with music, then physical education, and now foreign languages. While the money saved may go toward staple classes such as science and math, kids are still losing out on opportunities by these electives no longer being available to them. In these times of economic instability, parents may feel the need to step in and take their kids' language instruction into their own hands.
This can be difficult if the parents don't already speak a foreign language themselves. In the absence of school language programs, parents may need to pursue alternatives such as private tutors, or audio-based language lessons. The upside to this is parents can learn at the same time they're teaching their kids, which means they'll reap the same cognitive benefits. Any expense parents may incur for language lessons will be more than made up in knowing they're giving their kids an advantage in learning, a head start on rewarding careers, and better cognitive health in their retirement years.