The Alchemy of Language

There is no simple answer to learning a language quickly and effectively, because we all “think different.” Before you ask how much differently, consider that in today’s world, there are over 7,000 languages to pick from.

How to successfully achieve fluency in our language of choice (that includes the one you speak already), likely depends on personal style. Despite all the claims made by “Rosetta Stone” and other language programs, for most of us, learning a new language does not always come easy, unless you happen to be an infant. In fact, after infancy, the stimulation of a second language actually creates neural pathways similar to those acquired when one learns how to juggle.

Yet despite the inevitable difficulties, with good reason, we might possess an inexplicably ardent desire for fluency in foreign languages at an adult age. Let’s face it. The human brain wants a challenge and learning a language gives it a healthy dose of that. Common myths suggest learning more than one language causes confusion, schizophrenia, and dual personalities, but I beg to differ.

There is real evidence that learning a language improves our cognitive abilities, promotes intelligence, improves memory, as well as problem-solving and attention skills — all simultaneously (according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and may even help prevent age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. In fact, a recent Swedish MRI study showed that studying a language for just three months can cause growth in the hippocampal region of the brain, the regions necessary for acquiring language and forming long-term memories.

What’s more, language centers in the brain actually grow as a result of successful language learning. Even our listening skills get a boost. The brain has to work harder to distinguish sounds in different languages, helping us become better communicators, even in our first language. That’s because learning a language draws our attention to the abstract rules and structures of languages in general.

There are plenty of logical reasons language is good for digestion, but what about our emotional and social selves? Language study makes us smarter people and opens us up to a world of possibilities. According to the great emperor Charlemagne, having another language means possessing a second soul.

Once you’ve achieved basic mastery in your language of choice, foreign cultural nuances that would have left you befuddled become a well for understanding people.

With increased language skills, the “feeling left out” phenomenon hopes to be slightly less exaggerated. To say the least, learning a new language powerfully expands our horizons. Just think of the possibilities. We might prioritize the following strategies.

First, interacting with your language daily without traveling. You suddenly have a good excuse to read, listen to, and otherwise interact with foreign media. Spiked interest in anything foreign, by virtue of its foreignness, expands our outlook on the world, because the world we are interacting with gets bigger.

Second, Skyping for daily practice. Countless websites function as language cafes and communities. An obvious opportunity to make friends or interact with new people is bound to increase our worldliness.

Third, sounding and looking more native. In the process of learning a language, native speakers, who perceive you as foreign, regardless of your ability with their language, will too often speak in English. To bypass this hurdle, study the people of the language and emulate them. The attempt alone can be a social experience that builds neural pathways in the brain, ones that help not only with word recognition and processing memory, but even spatial navigation, particularly when learning a language rapidly, in the time of less than two years.

Recently, I spent a year and a half living in South Korea and learning Korean. Being a native English speaker, this was no easy feat. The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State considers Korean, among other East Asian languages, nearly the most difficult language for a native English speaker to learn. Since I’m not Korean, and had zero exposure to any Asian language before I set out on my mission, I can wholly testify to the legitimacy of that statement.

Engrossed in intensive language programs at Korea’s famed Yonsei and Sogang Universities, the first six months proved the most difficult. Learning Korean characters, pronunciation, and grammar pushed me to let go of English and the alphabet as a reference for expressing thought. Instead, symbols and an entirely counterintuitive manner of expression gradually developed in my mind. The East is the East, and the West is the West, with good reason. Just as these two languages belong to opposite poles of the Earth, their logistics follow suit. While English seeks to get to the point in the first three words, Korean seems to draw out the listener and the point of what they are saying, making sure we absorb the details.

My experience of learning a language was all well and good, but what of the psychological effects? In my time abroad, I purposefully refused to speak English or be in the company of English speakers. Being somewhat of an extremist, in that time, I also only enjoyed Korean entertainment and food. My adventure reached far beyond phonetics, into Korea’s deep cultural roots.

During my first month back in the United States, I had trouble speaking English, and could not remotely access my French, a language I’d spoken fluently since I was a child. I panicked, thinking my Korean had totally wiped out my former language skills, but when the clouds cleared with sufficient rest and time, everything became balanced and integrated. Most interestingly, I’d begun to abstractly create and understand my thoughts from Eastern and Western references combined.

The effort made in learning a new language encourages us to increase our listening skills, ingenuity, break through fear, and explore our emotional life.

A child first develops his or her ability with language through listening. They have a wealth of understanding before they learn to speak, and later to read. Babies have years to become skilled, but most intensive language programs aim to create proficiency in less than two years. Since institutional learning can be somewhat of a pressure cooker, “breaks” provide much needed processing time.

Strangely, many of the Korean students I learned from expressed their frustration with improving their English speaking skills. Through countless examples, I observed how much fear was held about making mistakes or being misunderstood in English. Yet, a baby is hardly self-conscious when it begins to speak, perhaps due to adequate positive enforcement from loved ones? They just speak, and we understand them. Learning a language actually pushes us to overcome a fear of people and their judgment of us.

Furthermore, in Korean, for example, there exist emotional expressions that don’t immediately translate, and the language, by virtue of how it communicates, seems to encourage a range of emotional expression that was “out of the box,” from my Canadian and Jamaican roots. Every language has the potential to bring us deeper into our feelings.

Needless to say, all these things increase our humanity, and if nothing else, pure self-enjoyment. If for no other reason, learning a new language is useful for staying young and relevant in an ever increasingly global economy. Beyond the practical, fluency lends itself to multiculturalism and cultural exchanges that can only help to facilitate communication among all tribes, and more intricately, the facets of our minds.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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