Learn another language and keep your brain fit

Multilingualism has social, cognitive and wellbeing advantages for people of all ages

Most people in this part of the world have a smattering of French or Spanish which comes in useful when ordering dinner on holiday, but because much of the developed world speaks English there is less incentive for us to really try to become fluent, as it is generally accepted that wherever we may find ourselves someone will understand what we are trying to say.

However, if research is to be believed, learning a new language has huge benefits and not just for social reasons either. A new study from Scotland involving elderly participants revealed that those who began learning a completely new language had far better mental responses than those who were engaging in other learning activities.

Prof Antonella Sorace, founder of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, engaged a group of retired volunteers in an intensive course of Scots Gaelic while the remaining participants studied something else and the results were surprising.

“They didn’t know a word of Gaelic, so we tested them beforehand and after a week of a very intensive course, five hours a day,” she said in an interview. “Sure enough, when we compared them with other active retired people who were doing a course on something else – not just couch potatoes – we found in those who were doing a language course the brain responds.


“Even when you are in your 60s or 70s your brain responds. It’s a significant improvement. We think it’s about effort and novelty of the task.”

Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications with Age Action, agrees: “You’re never too old to learn something new and there would be great interest in lifelong learning groups about learning new languages or even refreshing your cúpla focail,” he says. “It’s a great way to keep the brain active and to learn about different peoples, countries and cultures.”

Use it or lose it

The need to keep the brain active is something we are all aware of. "Use it or lose it" may just seem like a catchy line, but it holds a lot of truth, and Martin Rogan, chief executive of Mental Health Ireland explains why exercising the brain is as important as keeping the body fit.

“It was thought as we got older our brain networks didn’t progress but in the past two decades research has revealed that the brain never stops growing new connections,” he says. “Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change with learning, so to learn a second language, or any new skill, is literally changing the internal structures and connectivity within the brain.

“One of the five ways to wellbeing is to keep learning and it is included for very good reason. The learning process will keep neurons firing, which assists in boosting memory, improving attention and has the potential to assist in staving off dementia.”

As well as keeping our brains active, Rogan says that because learning a new language is not a solo pursuit, it’s an ideal opportunity for engagement, making new friends, having new experiences with others, reaching a goal and having hope for the future.

“The skill of learning a new language is not only open to the very young, and research has shown that the over-55s show the highest success rate in succeeding to learn another language, due to their life experience of learning,” he says. “To learn a new language is a hopeful and positive sign of looking into the future and signals that the person is progressive and feels ready to take on a challenge.

“Mental health includes our relationship with ourselves and the internal dialogue that supports us. We know there are many concepts, feelings and constructs that are better articulated in some languages so having a second language can help us to formulate new ideas and express ourselves more completely.

“To learn a new skill, including a new language, is a great self-esteem boost. You have set your mind to something and succeeded. The personal rewards for this experience are huge and it demonstrates to us just how powerful our minds are.”

Neural networks

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, Prof Judith Kroll, from Pennsylvania State University, explained: "Recent studies reveal the remarkable ways in which bilingualism changes the brain networks that enable skilled cognition, support fluent language performance and facilitate new learning."

Taking the time to learn a new language can also help people recover from illnesses such as stroke and research has also indicated that it helps to delay the onset of dementia. But multilingualism has been shown to have many advantages for people of all ages. And many parents in Ireland are introducing their children to new languages.

Elena Heriquez is originally from the Canary Islands but has been living in Ireland since she was a teenager. The stay-at-home mother, who lives with her daughter Amy (9) and husband James Adams in Dublin, is bilingual but says while she speaks only two languages fluently, she will ensure her daughter becomes proficient in many more.

"In Spain we all learn a second language from primary school," she says. "I began to learn English when I was five but when I first came to Ireland, at 15 years old, it was more difficult for me, as the teachers in Spain were not native English speakers and the transition to English being spoken with an unfamiliar accent was hard for me to understand and be understood.

“I speak both English and Spanish fluently now, but so does my daughter, who also learns Irish at school. My intention is for her to learn more languages, so I hope introduce German and French soon. I believe that the ability to speak several languages give you many benefits, it changes the brain structure, improves your memory, makes you a multitasking person and very creative. I believe that studies have shown that being bilingual or have several languages can delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms.”

The ability to speak multiple languages of course makes it easier to find a job or travel around the world and really experience and understand different cultures. But the mother of one thinks that we, in English-speaking countries, don’t put enough emphasis on the importance of being bilingual.

“In comparison to Irish and British people, I think that both Spanish and other Europeans learn new languages more quickly,” she says. “This may be due to a number of factors – English being the business language has meant that English speakers expect everyone to speak their language, therefore many don’t make the effort. I have experience with some of my friends travelling to Spain and being annoyed, as they expected everywhere to be like the tourist areas with menus and signs in English.

"Perhaps it also because being from an island has meant that they have been more isolated, as in Europe the land borders mean that more people have exposure to foreign languages more often. But the world, of course, is shrinking and travel is much cheaper than in the past and the exposure to other languages and cultures is not only for the elite and wealthy."

Ability to learn

Dr David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and dean of the College of Progressive Education in Dublin, says while some people have an obvious knack for learning a new language, everyone has the ability to learn.

“Some people have a natural inborn facility to learn a language, which makes it easier for them to do so. Having said that, though, it is important to note that nearly anyone can learn a second language, if it is taught correctly,” he says.

“And when a foreign language it taught in a fun and engaging style, without an obsessive focus on grammar, it opens the world to students – both young and old. While learning any skill builds confidence and self-esteem, language learning is intrinsically rewarding.”

Cristina González is the founder of Olé School of Languages in Dublin, which caters for students from as young as three right up to a ripe old age. She explains why mastering a foreign tongue is beneficial to all ages and why the emphasis should always be on enjoying the class and having fun.

“Learning a language has tangible and proven benefits to one’s intelligence, memory and concentration,” she says “It opens up the world in terms of speaking to people and increased cultural awareness and, strangely enough, offers a better appreciation of the student’s own culture.

“Also a good level in a second language will certainly improve career opportunities in Ireland, but will also allow people to travel and work internationally. And when travelling abroad for work or on holidays, the fact that you can speak to the locals in their own language will allow for a more real and rewarding experience.

“While a younger student may be quicker at learning the vocabulary and a young adult may be quicker at learning the grammar, an older person has, sometimes, the advantage of experience, more time and more interest, this being why they are better suited to certain teaching methodologies such as the communicative approach.

“We run retiree courses, which have proven to be an immense success; and, through the feedback we have received, our students feel that the relaxing atmosphere adds to a more fun and productive learning experience – and that is what it is all about.”

Tips for mastering a new language

To avoid an accent, the younger the better when learning a language; however, anyone at any age can start.

Learning a language means mastering four skills – speaking, reading, writing and listening – which involve different types of intelligence. One student may develop better at one skill, such as listening, but may be weaker at another, such as writing.

Carry a dictionary (or app on your phone) around with you and learn new words throughout your day.

Try to have as much opportunity to converse as possible – with your fellow students, with your teacher or even in your head.

If you find your class is too grammar- and structure-heavy with not enough emphasis on conversation, speak to your teacher and request more opportunity to converse.

Make sure you find a native, passionate and experienced teacher, as this will help with learning.

As well as being informative and challenging, your language class should also be fun, so take the time to make new friends while stimulating your brain, learning a new skill and boosting your self-esteem.

If learning at home, find a well-recommended course and set yourself daily reminders to practice and complete assignments.

Change settings on your phone or computer to your new language, as this will encourage you to use the language daily.

Watch foreign films (or TG4 if refreshing your Irish skills) in the language you are learning – with subtitles to start and without as you progress.

Where possible, speak with native speakers – go to the country and converse with locals – so instead of booking a tourist resort in Spain or France, go off the beaten track and find the time to talk to people. Or if staying at home, head to the Gaeltacht for a few weeks and relish the opportunity to indulge in your mother tongue.

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