There are many reasons to learn a language. For some, it is a way to immerse themselves in a new culture, make new friends or open the door to travel. For others, it can be a way to connect to their roots. It is not uncommon to grow up speaking and understanding a language, only to lose it as we get older once we no longer use it.
Whatever your reason, Baycrest research suggests that learning a new language is good for your brain health – even if you never become fluent.
A recent study from Baycrest and York University found that older adults who studied Spanish showed similar improvements in certain critical cognitive skills, similar to those who engaged in brain training activities that targeted those skills. These results are remarkable, given that brain training focuses specifically on improving these aspects of cognition, while language learning does not. As well, those who learned Spanish reported greater enjoyment than those who engaged in brain training.
“These results are exciting because they indicate that older adults can reap cognitive benefits from an enjoyable activity in which they might want to participate regardless of these benefits,” says Dr. Jed Meltzer, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience, a neurorehabilitation scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the lead author on this study.
In the study, 76 older adults aged 65-75 were randomly assigned to one of three groups: language learning, brain training or a waitlist (with no language learning or brain training), which served as the control group. For 16 weeks, those in the language learning group spent 30 minutes a day, five days a week, learning Spanish using Duolingo, an online language learning app. Those in the brain training group spent the same amount of time but used BrainHQ by Posit Science.
They found that participants in the language learning group showed similar improvements as the brain training group in two areas of cognition: working memory and executive function – that is, the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused and avoid distractions.
“The participants in the language learning group showed significant cognitive improvements without becoming nearly fluent in Spanish, which suggests that you don’t have to be bilingual for your brain to benefit from working with another language,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, and adjunct scientist at the RRI.
This is great news, and means it’s never too late to learn another language and acquire some of the brain health benefits.
Tips to help you learn a new language
Dr. Meltzer is an expert in the field of neurolinguistics and has studied over a dozen languages. Below are some of his tips for learning a new language.
Establish a sustainable, daily habit.
Even 15 minutes a day is fine if you can do it reliably. Dr. Meltzer suggests using a mobile app, as this lets you fit your learning into little bits of free time throughout the day. Several apps are available to download, such as Duolingo, Memrise and Quizlet.
Focus on vocabulary first.
“The biggest obstacle to learning a new language is memorizing large amounts of vocabulary. In my experience, people often get scared off by reading about advanced grammar when they are just starting the language. Once you know 1,000 vocabulary words, the grammar will not seem so daunting,” says Dr. Meltzer.
Digital flashcard apps, like the ones listed above, are very helpful for this.
Watch and read familiar media in the language you want to learn.
A helpful way to learn is to watch movies and TV shows in your target language, and adding subtitles in the same language helps even more. Similarly, it’s helpful to read books that you’ve already read before in English, or at least books for which you have a translation to check.
Do what you can!
While you need to practice speaking a language with others in order to master it, it is not always easy to find an opportunity to do so.
“Fortunately, you can make plenty of progress on your own in the beginning. Focus on what you can do, like learning passive listening and reading skills, and practice your speaking when possible,” says Dr. Meltzer.