Diversity of language is a unique gift which is central to the human experience. How we communicate with one another helps us forge relationships or decide whether we want to connect with another person. But language is much more than a tool we use for expressing ourselves and sharing our thoughts. Being able to speak another language can in many cases improve the quality of life as well as job and business prospects. Being able to work for a translation agency or providing professional interpreting services are just some of the options. Additionally, scientific research reveals that language structure also impacts the way we think.
You don’t need to be a professional linguist to know that language is fraught with difficulties. Even when speaking with friends or family, the meaning of words can be misinterpreted and taken out of context. Indeed, how we communicate is determined not only by the specific words we use, but also how we use those words.
Another important aspect, which can directly impact our ability to communicate, even in the same language, are the local dialects or accents. In fact, often people speaking the same language may have severe difficulties in understanding each other, simply due to their accents or the dialect they use. A great example of this could be a conversation between a Londoner and someone who speaks with a strong northern or Scottish accent.
Nonetheless, some languages present more difficulties than we experience in the UK. Vietnamese, for example, can have several words that are spelled the same, however have a completely different meaning, depending on how the word is expressed through sound and tones. Because dialects are so different in Vietnam, a person from one province cannot easily understand someone from a neighbouring region.
Interpreters, language students, professional translators or expats trying to adapt to a new culture can often have a very difficult time, simply due to those aspects. Still, for all its difficulties, learning a second language can positively impact your health and improve the functionality of your brain. Interestingly, researchers at Stanford University also discovered language impacts on how people from different parts of the world think.
How the brain learns a new language?
Researchers at Penn State University in the US discovered that learning a language alters the neural networks in the brain in a positive way. The more words, grammar and contextual understanding a person develops while learning a new language, the more neurons wire together. As a result, the neural structure in regions of the brain that deal with language and communication get stronger.
Psychoanalysts have known for some time that the more you exercise the brain the stronger and more connected it becomes. The brain is an organ which works in the same way as a muscle or limb in your body – it gets better the more your practice the same action. The Penn University study found this to be the case regardless of age.
When we learn, the brain networks become better integrated and more flexible. This enables us to learn faster and more efficiently. People who habitually learn new skills and have new experiences typically learn quicker than people that do not habitually seek out new things to learn. Improving brain function ultimately has an impact on our view of the world and the quality of life we experience.
When we learn a second language, the density of both white matter and grey matter improves in the brain. Grey matter is associated with memory formation, emotions and sensory perception. White matter is the networks that make the connections between the different parts of your brain – thus enriching you experiences and your enjoyment in life.
The strengthening of brain structure is even more pronounced in language learners who speak a second language on a regular basis or listen to TV and radio in the language they are learning. Although it is easier for us to learn language as a child, learning a second language as an adult stimulates neural growth.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
The question of how language impacts the cognitive process has been an ongoing controversy in the study of the mind. The subject has teased philosophers, anthropologists, linguists and psychologists for years, and has also had implications of politics, religion and learning. Language is an extremely rich medium and words can be manipulated to convey a certain meaning.
Clinical research using fMRI technology has revealed some intriguing patterns in the way the brain processes new languages. A study at the Cornell University identified second languages are spatially separated in the brain region responsible for motor parts of ‘Language Movement’ – how we adjust our mouth, tongue and palate to create relevant sounds.
In contrast, there is little difference in the region of the brain which is responsible for comprehending language. The conclusion confirmed something linguists already knew; making the right sound is the most difficult aspect of learning a second language.
Pronunciation is the arguably the major stumbling block of language learning. Spare a thought for interpreters who are responsible for translating for political delegations, in meetings and public presentations. If the speaker has an accent they are not accustomed to, it makes real-time translation much more difficult.
Remembering sound is practically impossible to do without repetition. Most languages have intonation and accents that create barriers for language learners. And even once language students get a grasp of how certain words and accents sound, language has irregular verbs and exceptions to rules which inevitably trip us up.
Auditory feedback is critical during the initial development of language learning. A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in the United States confirmed that learning a language as an adult is the same as when we learn to speak our native language as a child. Researchers suggest the only difference is that when learning a second language as an adult enhances our communication skills.
The uncertainty of language learning
It is the ambiguity of language that can deter learners from progressing. Even expats living in a foreign country can be deterred from learning enough of a language to ‘get by’. It is often the case, that we start out acquiring a new skill with enthusiasm, but the capacity of the human brain has a low tolerance towards overcoming obstacles unless we have no other option.
Because language creates uncertainty, learners can stumble across barriers more often, and usually early on in the learning process. Even when a reasonable level of fluency is achieved, language still creates uncertainty. How many native speakers can explain the rules of grammar? Even if you use grammar correctly, would you be able to explain it to a foreigner learning English?
The difficulty levels of languages are classified using various metrics, one of which is the complexity of the grammar. Spanish for example, has a different word for past, present, future and gerund, which changes again depending on the person you are addressing or talking about. There can easily be a total of 26 words attached to one verb compared to English that has three.
Spanish is therefore classed as the second hardest language to learn within the global community. However, this is only a reflection on the country of origin the student is from. Natives from countries that used a latin-based language such as Italians, Spaniards, French and Portuguese can all learn one another’s language very easily because the rules and the words are very alike. The same is true for Asian people learning Asian languages.
Even native English speakers can grasp Mediterranean languages fairly quickly once the learner grasps the general rules of grammar and pronunciation. However, Asians have a much harder challenge learning European languages because the sounds and grammatical rules are so much different. The same rule applies for westerners learning Asian languages.
The sounds individuals produce also impacts on the ability to be understood in another language; even their own language. For example, foreigners speaking with somebody with an accent from the north of England will probably not understand the vowel sounds if they have trained their ear to standard, neutral English. When you hear a word differently, the context and the subject of a conversation can change. Confusions ensues.
The reason for this is because words feature sound units called “phonemes” which become wired in the brain’s language centres when we learn our mother tongue. Phonemes that are not essential to native languages are not incorporated by the language centres thus our brains do not automatically train our mouth to move into a position to make the sounds that are unfamiliar to us.
This explains why Japanese and Chinese people struggle to say R’s and L’s when speaking English or other European languages. Because most Asian languages do not distinguish between R and L, they only have one phoneme to represent both sounds. Brain imaging scans in one University study revealed that only a single region of the brain lit up when Japanese speakers were presented with English words that required the speaker to pronounce the R or the L.
In today’s multicultural society where countries have open borders to allow expats to live overseas, learning a language is more than a hobby. In non-English speaking parts of the world, the younger generations are encouraged to learn English in order to boost their job prospects and ultimately their earnings.
Learning language not only gives you an advantage when travelling to a foreign country or communicating with immigrants in your local environment, it boosts your general cognitive ability which ultimately helps you nurture a broader view of the world. As a result, learning a new language can give you a better quality of life.