Aging is something we all must face up to, and some people look forward to it, and others do not. Getting older is perhaps not the worry, but losing bodily or mental capacity is. Bodily worries can possibly be overcome by good diet and exercise and most people are fortunately aware of this continuing with both well into old age. Mental health, on the other hand, is something few people know how to address, but there is a remarkable way to keep the brain healthy.
Some people do crosswords and others Sudoku, and these both can stimulate the brain, and yet they come a close second to the ultimate brain exercise and always will. The best challenge you can set for your brain as you get older is to learn or speak another language. Understanding language, even your native language, is one of the most difficult things for your brain to achieve. Adding a second language to this is, a brand new language, is the equivalent of an Olympic event for your brain.
Studies around the world, and in particular Edinburgh University, have proven that speaking a second language has positive effects on the brain. Research conducted between 2008 and 2010 with some participants first tested in the late 1940s showed improved cognitive abilities in older people who spoke a second language. Cognitive abilities are the brain-based skills that are needed for humans to undertake anything form simple tasks to the most complex. By using MRI technology, scientists have collected evidence to prove that parts of the brain actually grow when a person studies a language intensively over a longer period of time. Strangely enough, no brain growth was detected in the control group that had not been learning a language although they had been studying just as intensively. How we learn, remember, solve problems and even pay attention are all improved with a second language.
Knowing a second language and learning a second language keeps the brain extremely active. Even if a person has been speaking the language from a young age, the exercise this creates for the brain is considerable. People often think that those who speak a second language are more clever, and they would not be entirely wrong. Because speaking a second language works the brain harder, the brain absorbs more and retains more. Extending this into later years has shown that people with a second language have brains that seem to age slower or better and they are more intelligent as a result.
There are believed to be links between second language acquisition and aging ailments, such as dementia and even Alzheimer’s. Because the brain must juggle and shuffle things around can switch between languages, this activity keeps the brain healthy. Memory and concentration levels remain high, and can even increase with a second language later in life. It makes sense that overall communication ability is improved and the perception of higher intelligence is indeed a definite and proven increase.
With a second language, older people need never be bored, as the language not only improves focus and attention spans but also aids creativity. For a long and healthy life, with all your cognitive abilities intact, a second language is the answer. It is never too late to learn, even at an older age the challenge a language brings is very good for mental and physical health.
I hope you have put into practise some of my tips from the last blog. Please share any that work well for you, with me and the VLLC community. Here are a few more.
Tip 7. Consistent learning will achieve a better result for you than having intense periods of learning followed by periods of no learning. The same principle applies to fitness – regular consistent effort is more effective in the long run. Try diarizing 15 - 30 minutes at least 3 - 4 times a week (or better still each day) to do something in your new language (online lesson, homework – even listening to music will be of benefit).
Tip 8. Start with 100 words and then make sentences with them over and over again. You don’t need to know lots of grammar to be able to do this – just use what you know and you will begin to become comfortable with thinking in your new language. E.g. “Where is ……..? I want to ………; Do you want ……..? etc”
It’s amazing what you can actually say with 100 words. I remember reading somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where….) that the most common 100 words in any language account for 50% of all spoken communication; the most common 1,000 words account for 80% of all spoken communication. Amazing isn’t it, how few words we actually need to communicate with each other. Many students get ‘stuck’ because they continually focus on what they don’t know rather than using what they do know.
Tip 9. Practise your new language in your head. Practice sentences and conversations in your head in your new language before speaking with a native speaker. This is like role playing and leads to much easier conversations when you actually have them. I am continually amazed at how fluent I am in my head!!! Obviously this does not replace real conversations but can be a useful tool to help you learn to ‘think’ in your new language.
Tip 10. ‘I understand; I don’t understand; please repeat; please speak slowly; one more time’ are the some of the most important phrases you can learn in your new language. Use them all the time when you are having a conversation (even in your head) rather than reverting to English. It is critical to stay in your new language zone…….
Tip 11. Speak – speak – speak. You must create the new habit of speaking out loud in your new language. Create as many opportunities as you can to have conversations. At first it may be awkward and you will be out of your comfort zone, but as you persist you will create new comfort zones for yourself. Having real conversation with native speakers is completely different to doing an online lesson or practising in your head as you are being forced to formulate meaning and significance in your new language on the spot. Use Tip 10 to help you.
Tip 12. Make it fun - Engage your emotions. We all know that emotion (or passion) is the language of the subconscious mind. If you are going to stick to your goal of becoming bi- or multi- lingual, you have to find a way to engage your emotions and make the learning journey fun. We all learn better when we enjoy the topic or the learning process - find people you enjoy talking to; talk about topics that you are interested in; listen to music that you love; make it personal…
Try these tips and let me know if you want me to expand on any of them. My next blog will be on ways that you can practise your language skills.
Happy learning, Jo
These blogs are about learning a foreign language and how utilising that skill can help to keep your mind active and assist with your cognitive function.