How learning languages makes you smart, successful – and a better citizen

Speaking foreign languages has obvious practical and intellectual advantages, and most of you will have noticed press reports that it is also beneficial for your brain, possibly even staving off dementia.

Reading_French_BordeauxThe effects on your cognitive ability and memory are easy to believe: the more you study languages, the easier it gets, whether they are related or not, and the more smoothly learning in general will grow.

Beyond that, recent research has shown that multilingual people are more creative and innovative! As teachers and social scientists, you probably agree with Amy Thompson’s article in The Conversation (12 Dec 2016) without hesitation.

But would you have thought that the study and, crucially, the practice of foreign languages increases your tolerance, as Thompson suggests?

Well, through enhanced cultural competence, obviously – each one of us can tell stories of being baffled by black tea of a murky white, black tea of a transparent red, cold coffee specialties, or the desperate search for soya milk… Good move also not to ask for a Turkish coffee in Greece or a Greek coffee in Turkey!

Beyond that, the tolerance of living with the unknown apparently improves your tolerance overall: If you can bear the stress of a conversation in which you do not understand every word – in real life or in a classroom – your skills will rocket, so will your self-esteem, so will your ‘tolerance of ambiguity’, as Professor Thompson puts it.

What about material advantages of mastering several languages? In her brief and engaging book Linguanomics : what is the market potential of multilingualism? (2017), available at the Newsam Library, Gabrielle Hogan-Brun discusses the benefits of foreign language skills for people’s career prospects and social life. She also depicts drawbacks or disasters where communication goes wrong — in the worst case in a plane crash.

Hogan-Brun also glimpses at the language practices and policies in many parts of the world and even in ancient times, beginning with the seafaring Phoenicians and the caravans along the Silk Road. She concludes that studying another language ‘is an ongoing journey of development, interaction and discovery’.

Linguanomics reports that the Swiss canton of Zurich has switched from French to English as a second language in 2006/07. Naturally, the second language will not be the last one: children are taught English from the age of 7 and French from the age of 10.

Tall blue volumes on library shelves.The German region bordering on France aims to make all its younger citizens fully bilingual by the middle of the 21st century. Saarland wants to be a gateway to France, while English will naturally also be spoken.

In fact, it is EU policy to teach children a third language, which makes the English term ‘second language learning’ incomprehensible to Europeans.

The Comparative Education Collection at the Newsam Library  holds a raft of books about ‘tertiary language learning’ and ‘multiliteracy’ in Europe. The EU’s guide to plurilingual education (2007) extols diversity and citizenship — and warns of merely economic preferences for a national language and, above all, for English.

Should the United Kingdom really leave the European Union, the number of native English speakers will, as one of our recent books alerted me, drop to 1%! Do you think that in the EU of the future, 99% of citizens will speak English anyway, whether as their first, second, third, or fourth language?

The languages you use will strongly influence your individual and collective identity. The Institute of Education holds books on language and identity in, for example, Switzerland (Langues à l’école : quelle politique pour quelle Suisse?, 2007), France (Identity, insecurity and image : France and language, 1999), and Germany (Language, Discourse and Identity in Central Europe, 2009, online).

In a previous blog post, I recommended Reading aloud as a way of learning a language as the next best thing after speaking, based on my personal experience. Now I add: As soon as you get the gist, read on without consulting a dictionary; in the same way, as soon as you can communicate at all, take a deep breath and speak.

BlogEdinLibYou may be interested in the Curriculum Resources section of the Newsam Library at the IOE, complemented by Mandarin books and CDs and constantly updated.

Do browse our Education in Literature Collection: behind the  children’s reading corner, novels from all over the world (in English) and films in foreign languages with subtitles wait for you.

For academic material, head to the Main Collection and have a look at classmarks ‘Men’ for foreign language learning and teaching. ‘Men Bat’ stands for cross-cultural competence, ‘Men Jab’ for language acquisition, and ‘Men Mar’ for applied linguistics. Consult the Explore catalogue straight away for thousands of resources available across UCL libraries and online.

weimar_goethe_wohnhaus_salve20150930The UCL Centre for Languages & International Education (CLIE) runs language classes and summer schools. I have also found the nearby private college, the City Literary Institute (‘City Lit’, est. 1919), helpful for language tuition and conversation.

As regards research in bilingual and multilingual language acquisition, education, and competence, some is conducted right here, at the UCL Institute of Education.

Let me end with a statement by Goethe, who, incidentally or not, was proficient in six languages: “Who does not understand other languages, knows nothing of his own”!


Illustrations: Sculpture by Jaume Plensa. Photograph: Christina Egan. — ‘Datenhandbuch zur deutschen Bildungsgeschichte’. Photograph: Christina Egan. — Education in Literature Collection, Newsam Library, UCL IOE. Photograph: Beverley Hinton. — Goethe’s house in Weimar, Germany, with Latin greeting on the threshold. Photograph: Hajotthu at the German language Wikipedia.

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