“Like drinking from a mental fountain of youth,” is how author William Alexander describes the benefits of studying French on his brain.
In his thoroughly enjoyable book, Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, he chronicles his year-long quest to learn the language of love. Despite Alexander’s best efforts to master the language through classes, Meetup groups, television, and even a two-week immersion program in France, the odyssey ended with him far from his goal of fluency.
C’est la vie.
However, the failure had an unexpected silver lining.
“In the end, though, it turns out that spending a year not learning French may have been the best thing I could’ve done for my 57-year-old brain,” Alexander wrote in a New York Times editorial.
The results of cognitive tests taken both before and after a year learning a language shocked him. His scores had skyrocketed with his verbal memory score leaping from the bottom half to the eighty-eighth percentile and his visual memory moving up from the bottom five percent to the fiftieth percentile.
Bravo, Monsieur Alexander!
How does language learning improve cognitive functioning so dramatically?
In the TED Talk, The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain, Mia Nacamulli states that regardless of when you acquire additional languages, being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
“Some of these are even visible,” she said. Brain scans reveal that there’s a higher density of gray matter in bilingual individuals, specifically in the region that is involved in executive functioning like problem solving and switching between tasks.
It also improves brain connectivity. Many scientists now believe that because learning a language is so complex and uses overlapping regions of the brain, it is one of the best exercises you can do to keep it working optimally. In older learners, the cognitive benefits of mastering another language may even extend to working memory.
In fact, just being bilingual offers considerable protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s according to a study published by the University of Edinburgh. It concluded that knowing two or more languages staved off dementia, on average, four and a half years. Scientists believe that bilinguals are more resilient in dealing with neurodegeneration than monolinguals because of cognitive reserve, a concept that explains a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function despite biological damage in the brain as it ages.
Has this impressive data encouraged you to start learning a language? If so, here are some ways to start:
Take a class
Virtual learning has been popular for some time, but COVID has dramatically necessitated the scope of learning possibilities. Personally, I’ve been taking French classes at Quebec City’s Laval University. In the virtual classrooms, which are held on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, I wrestle with tongue-twisting pronunciation and foreign grammatical structures with fellow students of all ages and nationalities. It’s a scene that could only have been imagined in science fiction a few decades earlier. Sitting at my dining room table, I attempt to speak French with my classmates who are doing the same from their homes in Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, and Iran among other places. And, more amazingly, we are sharing the bandwidth with millions of other learners in the world as many educational institutions, whether local or on the other side of the world, are now offering their classes online.
Local options include University of Buffalo, whose Department of Linguistics offers non-degree programing in more than fifteen languages. Upskill.org, Buffalo’s Public Schools Adult Education Division, also has a variety of courses, including Conversational Japanese, Instant Italian and Speed Spanish.
Online there’s Italki.com, which has an impressive roster of both professional teachers and local tutors from around the world. Lingoda, a German-based company, offers small-group and private classes with native speakers in French, English, German, and Spanish. The program uniqueness lies in its flexibility, as students choose when and what they want to study from a wide selection of classes offered 24/7.
Learn on your own
It’s a myth that you need classes to learn a language. Self-study methods can be just as effective. First, develop a system of learning new vocabulary. This can be as simple as using flashcards or a small notebook that you keep nearby to more technical methods like a software program. ANKI, for example, is a timed repetition program that repeats a word at increasingly longer intervals, so it stays fresh in your mind. Start by just adding words, and then when you’re comfortable, try complete sentences.
Be sure to immerse yourself in the language, using whatever methods are enjoyable for you. Start watching TV programs in your target language, and you’ll begin to absorb its sounds and rhythms. (Netflix has a slew of series in foreign tongues to choose from). TED Talks are short, informative videos on a wide variety of subjects, and they are available in dozens of languages. Songs are another fun option. I once met a young woman in Hungary who claimed to have learned her fluent English entirely through rock music. She said it worked very well except for the time she asked someone for a light by saying, “C’mon baby, light my fire.”
Whatever method you decide on, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy the process itself. As Alexander discovered when he dedicated himself to learning French for a year, acquiring a language is not particularly easy. Even if you don’t reach full fluency, your brain will thank you for the effort.
William Alexander: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart:
University of Laval:
TED Talk, “The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain,” by Mia Nacamulli:
University of Buffalo:
Buffalo’s Public Schools Adult Education Division:
Jennifer Merrick is an award-winning freelance writer, photographer, and avid traveler based in Toronto.