6 Research-Backed Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Travel. Work. Love.

These are just three of the reasons that students cite for learning a new language.

I would love to travel — and actually be able to order coffee the way I want it.

I need this language for my job. My boss will be very impressed if I’m able to negotiate with our foreign partners.

Well, there’s this girl …

All of the above are answers that I receive when I ask my language students the one question I always start with: Why do you want to learn a foreign language?

None of the learners ever say, “because it will change the way I think,” or, “because I’ll be more open-minded and make better decisions.” But learning a language will accomplish these objectives, too.

When you’re learning a new language — in school, with a tutor, or on your own — you’re (understandably) interested in the immediate consequences it will have on your life. Focusing on the short-term benefits is natural, and this is often a good motivating factor to keep you chugging along through unusual alphabets, dozens of declensions, and vocabulary drills. Short-term results are easier to quantify, and learners tend to focus on them to stay motivated. And that’s a perfectly good strategy.

But acquiring, practicing, and speaking a foreign language has important long-term benefits, too.

Let’s look at six benefits you will reap when you start learning a foreign language, all of them backed by solid scientific evidence.

1. It will help you make better long-term decisions.

A study conducted at the University of Chicago by Dr. Boaz Keysar found that using a foreign language affects decision-making bias. When multilinguals talk in a foreign language, they are more emotionally detached than when they use their native language.

In other words, speaking more than one language may provide an individual with the ability to distance herself from impulses and immediate reactions. A bi- or multilingual person might then be more likely to act based on analysis. Having the ability to speak more than one language encourages deliberate rather than emotional thought processes.

Next time you have to make a long-term decision that involves a moderate amount of risk, think of how you could express that dilemma in a foreign language. This will put helpful distance between you and your potentially rash response.

2. It will improve your memory and focus.

A 2012 study published by Northwestern University established that it’s easier for bilinguals to pay attention to relevant sounds and to block out irrelevant ones. This increase in focus suggests that people with the ability to speak more than one language can filter out unimportant input more effectively than monoglots. This may be due to the fact that multilingual people have trained themselves to “juggle” or tune into relevant linguistic input while ignoring other auditory input.

The term “mental juggling” surfaces again in research from Pennsylvania State University, where scholars have have likened speaking more than one language to exercising in a mental gymnasium.

Improved focus on important information — and a heightened ability to edit out irrelevant information mentally — is another benefit of bilingualism, according to Judith Kroll at Penn State. The study explains that fluent bilinguals rarely make language substitution mistakes when speaking with someone who only understands one of the languages. The process of language selection, called code-switching, is an excellent form of mental exercise that helps bilinguals cognitively prioritize information.

To get a better sense of this benefit, pay attention to how well you’re able to switch off and tune out your native language when you’re speaking in a foreign language. The more control you have over this ability, the more you’ll be able to use it every time you need to maintain focus and keep distractions at bay.

3. It will literally make your brain grow.

As part of a study in Sweden, scientists measured the brains of learners with an MRI before and after short-term intensive language learning. They then compared these scans with those of medical students who’d been studying for exams. Researchers found that the brains of the language study group had physically changed. The hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and spatial navigation, plus three other parts of the cerebral cortex related to language learning, underwent structural changes and growth.

The research also demonstrated that the more we study a foreign language, the easier it becomes for the brain to acquire a new language, due to the physical changes that occur in the brain regions that serve language functions.

4. You will literally see the world in a different way.

Panos Athanasopoulosa, a researcher at Newcastle University, found that bilingual speakers are able visually to distinguish among different stimuli (such as colors), if those images are represented by distinct words in their second language. So, for example, when you learn the words for different shades of blue in Japanese (four are commonly used), you may start noticing the differences between those shades in your everyday life, even if you hadn’t paid close attention to them before. While having these distinct words may not shape our sensory perception, they may help us to see the world with fresh eyes.

When we’re learning a new language, we’re also learning a different way of seeing the world, especially when we immerse ourselves in the culture associated with that language.

5. You will improve your native language skills.

When you speak in your native language, you don’t usually need to focus on (or even think about) technical aspects — verb forms, exceptions to grammar rules, or sentence structures. But when you learn a foreign language, you become more aware of the mechanics of language in general. This is called metalinguistic awareness, and according to studies conducted at the University of South Australia, it contributes to improved communication and literacy. In other words, once you are able to manage linguistic concepts in a non-native language, you become better equipped to deal with the complexities of your own language.

6. You will become more open-minded.

When you’re learning another language, you’re not just learning the words for objects or actions. You’re also becoming more aware of other values, perspectives, and beliefs. Studies have shown that being exposed to different ways of speaking about and understanding the world will make you more open to the idea that your view of the world is just that: your view of the world. Rather than being fixed and absolute, you will become more aware of a variety of perspectives.

A Final Note

As a language learner, it’s easy to feel frustrated. You may struggle to stay motivated, especially when the process becomes repetitive or challenging. While some of the scientifically-proven benefits of foreign-language study are not easy to notice or quantify by learners themselves (especially right away), it’s a good idea to remind yourself of them from time to time. If you stick with a new language, you’ll be on your way to personal growth and development far beyond a new set of vocabulary words. And it’s also nice to be able to order that coffee the way you like it, too.

Check out these free resources for learning foreign languages on Noodle, including more advice from Mickey Gast and other Noodle Experts.