The popularity of brain training is testament to the belief that the brain is like a muscle - use it or lose it. One effective way to flex your cognitive muscles is by learning new languages*. Bi-or multilingalism can help to improve concentration, cognition in later life, and even increase the size of certain brain areas. Onset of Alzheimer’s disease was found to be delayed in bilinguals by roughly 4 to 5 years. Language acquisition really is like a workout for the brain.
Now is the best time there has ever been to learn new languages
A longstanding regret of mine was that, in spite of being half-Polish, I never learned the language. Having previously made several failed attempts, I am now finding success. The internet and ease of travel have opened up new methods and opportunities for language learning and I believe that now is the best time there has ever been to learn new languages.
We can’t all immerse ourselves for months in another country, so here are some of the best tools I have found:
Duolingo is a tidy little free app, which teaches you languages as a game. You set yourself targets for how many experience points (XP) you gain in a day, from a basic 1 XP to an ‘insane’ 50 XP per day. You have a cute owl called Duo coaching you on your way, and you can compete with your friends for the most points, or the longest unbroken streak of daily practice.
Audio Courses (eg. Pimsleur/Michel Thomas/Innovative language) get you to speak from the first lesson, and are time efficient, as you can get on with small chores while you learn. They give a sense of how to construct sentences, but the scope of vocabulary is limited so they need to be supplemented with other methods. My local library offers audio courses in a wide range of languages, so it's worth checking out what you can access from your own public library.
Language exchange websites (eg. iTalki, Speaky and Conversation Exchange) connect you with speakers of other languages. Within hours of signing up to Speaky, I met several native speakers. The app allows you to correct each other's mistakes without disturbing the flow of the written conversation. Priceless. But also free.
My first conversation in Polish was an excruciating embarrassment
I am fortunate enough to live in a global city, where I meet people from all over the World. Although I worry that they find it a burden, my foreign friends seem delighted when I make my bumbling attempts to converse in their language. My first conversation in Polish was an excruciating embarrassment, even though it was with one of the loveliest, least judgemental people you could hope to meet. I blushed bright red, and stammered a few, exceedingly poor sentences. But, it set me on a path so that a couple of weeks later, I was able to enjoy a lengthy Polish conversation without resorting to English. I’m still talking with the accuracy of a toddler, but am undoubtedly progressing.
There are myriad language learning podcasts out there. My favourites are those which are simply people talking slowly and clearly about interesting subjects, such as RealPolish, and the “News in easy French.” No languages other than the target language are used, but transcripts are available.
I haven’t mentioned textbooks yet, because the biggest factor affecting success must surely be motivation. Grammar can be overwhelming and boring for beginners. Once you’ve reached the point where you have sufficient vocabulary to express yourself, but your errors are holding you back from being well understood, you will be interested to find out why your chosen language expresses itself in such a way. Maybe.
It’s not an easy process; language learning takes time and effort. But the rewards are huge. Your brain will thank you (!) and even a basic grasp of a local language will make a huge difference when you travel overseas. So, if you are thinking of brushing up on your school French, or trying out a whole new language - go for it! There’s never been a better time.
*I can’t resist mentioning that Physical exercise is also important
Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.