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Speaking multiple languages may be easier than you think

Two studies find big benefits in learning a new language

If you’ve ever met anyone who is able to speak multiple languages, then you know it can sometimes make you feel a little dumb. Also, many of us think people that speak more than one language must be over-achievers or just unusually curious, born with a huge desire to learn other cultures. Sometimes we think bilingual people are just smarter than us.

But according to a couple of different studies, the actual process of learning a language is what makes people want to keep going and learn more.

Viorica Marian, an associate professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University, says the mere challenge of taking on another language is the very thing that pushes many to do so.

“It’s often assumed that individuals who’ve learned multiple languages simply have a natural aptitude for learning languages,” she said in a published interview. “While that is true in some cases, our research shows that the experience of becoming bilingual itself makes learning a new language easier.”

Marian came to these findings by gathering people who spoke English as a first language, but also spoke either Mandarin or Spanish fluently. People who spoke only English were also included in the study.

Researchers then created their own language that was vastly different from the languages spoken by the participants, and they found that because the study subjects had already gone through the process of learning a new language, they had a much easier time grasping the made-up words.

The bilingual subjects also learned twice as many words than those who only spoke English. Developing language skills, it seems is like lifting weights to develop muscles: Beef up your language skills and you can learn more languages more easily, beef up your muscles and you can hoist more babies, grocery bags and stray furniture,

Useful approaches

Viorica Marian

Marian and her team pointed out that bilingual participants were able to apply useful approaches towards learning a new language, that allowed them to process and learn at a much faster rate.

“After learning another language, individuals can transfer language learning strategies they’ve acquired to subsequent language learning and become better language learners in general,” said Marian.

She also said that bilingual people are able to learn words at a faster rate within their own native tongue.

Apparently, these research findings confirm two separate truths: One, if you already speak a foreign language and you want to learn another one, you’ve made a big start.

And two, if you only speak one language and you were always confused about how people learn other tongues so quickly, it's nice to know there’s really no magic to it--you just have to learn the proper strategies and apply them.

Never too early

Margarita Kaushanskaya, who co-authored the study, emphasized that it’s never too early for a child to learn a new language, because the earlier they learn, the easier time they’ll have at grasping a second, third or fourth language.

“We’re seeing that exposure to two languages early in life carries far-reaching benefits,” said Kaushanskaya. “Our research tells us that children who grow up with two languages wind up being better language learners later on.”

Clearly, the Northwestern researchers found a strong correlation between being bilingual and having faster brain activity, which was confirmed in a separate study conducted by the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and published in the current issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Scientists found not only do bilingual people possess a different type of brain activity, they're also able to take the lessons of learning a new language and apply it to their everyday lives. The study showed this was particularly true for older adults who have been speaking at least two languages since childhood.

The Kentucky study consisted of both bilingual and monolingual participants aged 60 to 68, who were asked to perform a mental ability test.

Researchers learned that everyone who took the test answered the questions correctly. However, the bilingual participants completed their tests faster, which showed that speaking at least two languages on a regular basis can allow for stronger cognitive abilities as you grow older.

These findings provide a bit of a path for younger adults to take, as a way to maintain and improve upon mental sharpness as they increase in age, say researchers.

Bilingual seniors

“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” said Gold. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

So for those folks who want to learn a new language, Rosetta Stone seems to be the go-to company, as it brands itself as the easiest and fastest way for one to learn a new language.

On the company’s website, you can purchase all five levels of Rosetta Stone for about $500 or you can purchase individual levels for under $200, which is a pretty hefty cost if you’re on a tight budget.

However, one good way of getting the popular language teacher is through your job.

If learning and speaking another language will benefit you in your current position, and it will allow you to do your job more effectively, there’s a good chance that you can get Rosetta Stone through your Continuing Education benefit at work.

Many companies offer this benefit, picking up some or all of the cost of taking a college course, getting another degree or obtaining some kind of training that applies to your job, and Rosetta Stone should fall under the training category in most cases--since it could help you in your daily tasks, particularly if you deal with customers from different backgrounds or if your company has overseas offices.

But either way, many experts have confirmed that learning a new language isn’t as hard as we may think, and once we conquer that first new language, we’ll take that same conquering mentality to another dialect, which will  serve us well in many useful ways. Both now and in the future.

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