Enhancing memory, concentration and problem solving skills

Image: Results from a study measuring gray-matter volumes in bilingual or monolingual undergraduates, discussed by Mark Antoniou at Knowable Magazine, 29 November 2018.

By now the benefits to cognitive function from learning a language have been well studied and documented. But what does this mean for your everyday life?

Learning a language will see an increase in your working memory. Pretty handy when you forgot to write down that... thing that was so important that you now can't remember... Was it something from the supermarket that you forgot? Or was it something on your to-do list? Or was it a birthday? Or that name? Or that... never mind. The point is: wouldn't it be lovely if recalling important bits of information came slightly easier each day?

Memory is an obvious one, but have you ever heard that language learning can increase your problem-solving skills and decision-making? It's wild but true! Studies suggest that thinking through a problem in your second language allows more logical and creative decision-making. A great tool to have in your box when it comes time to make a very important decision or solve an issue that's been stressing you out. We also know that language learning can increase the ability to concentrate, something we all struggle with in our swiping and scrolling modern world that constantly bids for our attention.

These benefits come from a physical change in our brains that can be seen under MRI. Bilingualism is associated with denser grey matter and stronger white matter. As you learn more, your grey matter increases and is slower to decrease with age than those who are monolingual. So you're not just imagining it – you are absolutely getting smarter when you learn a language!


Potentially staving off Alzheimer's

The boost in cognitive function we get from learning a language doesn't just get us sharp - it keeps us sharp! Learning a second language requires us to use parts of our brain that we simply don't use when we speak our mother tongue. Researchers believe this creates a cognitive reserve that delays the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer's. In a 2020 Meta-Analysis of over 20 studies on the subject, it was found that speaking a second language consistently delayed symptoms of Alzheimer's by up to 5 years. The current understanding is that learning a second language challenges the brain in novel ways, forming new neural pathways when others begin to decline. 

Improving mental health

While no one is saying that language learning is an answer for a serious mental health issue, language learners can expect a boost in their confidence, mood, and resilience!

First, there is the confidence boost of doing something outside of your comfort zone. In our everyday lives we become used to not being pushed too far from our skill set - and this provides a certain level of comfort and confidence in our abilities. But getting better at something you have no skills or aptitude in? Now that's a real confidence boost! Knowing that you're capable of doing anything you put your mind to is a badge of honour that you'll be able to wear wherever you go.

This is because learning a language is such a delightful struggle! It takes time, and brain squeezing, taking risks and sticking with something for the long haul. As you continue to do this, your natural resilience to challenge, risk and toil will increase. Being resilient means pushing through when things get difficult, bouncing back after setbacks and staying positive and motivated no matter the obstacle. What else could you achieve, and how great could you feel with this attitude?

An abundance of positive relationships

As we go through life, opportunities to make new connections can sadly become more and more sparse. Yet research has linked social isolation and loneliness to poor health outcomes. Joining a regular group class is a simple yet effective way of ensuring we're making more connections, seeking out new experiences and maintaining our social well-being. 

Not only can language learning increase the number of our relationships, it can increase their quality too. A language contains generations' worth of culture, politics, history, and social norms that may be different from our mother tongue and general grasp on the world as it is. As you learn, these differences will become more and more obvious and require seeing things from a slightly new perspective.

Moreover, there is a very humbling experience of speaking a language that you're not fluent in yet. You'll learn that to be understood, it will require a listener to be patient and... empathetic.

And this connection has not gone unnoticed. Researchers have identified a link between learning a language and an increase in empathy. Whether it's caused by a shift in point of view – putting yourself in another's shoes or the gratitude of others' empathy while struggling to be understood – this link is well documented. When we increase the flexibility of our mind and perspective, and take the time to understand someone, we can expect to form a stronger bond with them, have less conflict with them, and for that relationship to become more resilient. This uptick in empathy from your new language will make doing all this so much easier - and how great is that?!

Carmel and Gabbi - El Patio Team

Paula, Isidro and Phil - El Patio Team

At El Patio, we try to keep classes together and continue on as a group, Term after Term. Of course, people come and go, but we've had groups that have been together for over 10 years! We foster a space where community is built, curiosity is encouraged, and making mistakes is a given! We've seen friendships blossom, new social groups form and even had couples who met in class get married! We love seeing our community grow, relationships form and strengthen because, learning a language at the end of the day, is a social endevour! And as it turns out, it doesn't just feel good, it's good FOR us! So whether you're thinking of starting, continuing or jumping back in - know, it's one of the best decisions you can make for your health this year. 

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