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Sure, learning a second language allows us to communicate in new ways with new people. But what effects does it have on our cognitive processes? There’s a proven correlation between language learning and intelligence, memory, metalinguistic skills, problem solving ability — the list goes on. But what about the specific effects of learning a language that’s entirely different from your native language? Are there any extra benefits to studying a language that is markedly different from your native language? Research says yes.
A Whole-Brain Workout
Ranking as one of the world’s most-spoken languages, Arabic is undoubtedly a useful language to have in your arsenal. But, according to the Foreign Service Institute, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages to learn for those whose primary language is English. Arabic ranks in Category 5 level of difficulty, meaning that it takes at least 88 weeks or 2,2000 hours of study to learn. It shares the same level of difficulty as Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. So why should we take the time to learn it?
Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel have found that when reading Arabic, readers’ brains must spend time interpreting minute visual details in ways that native English speakers do not.
For example, the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters. Only three of them are vowels. These vowels and a third of the consonants have different variations. In fact, many consonants share the same shapes–the only thing differentiating them from another letter is a system of small dots above or below the letters. A tiny line above or below a consonant can add a vowel sound to that letter. If you’re not paying close attention, you’ll easily miss those indicators.
So how does this change the brain of an Arabic learner? Studiers of Arabic learn to be very careful. They quickly realize that the placement of a dot over a shape can change the meaning of a word. This, in turn, alters brain function.
Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities and the Learning Disabilities Department at the University of Haifa led the study. He notes, “It emerges that the contribution of the two halves of the brain to processing written language depends on the graphic and linguistic structure of these languages.”
The two hemispheres of the brain govern different types of activities: The right hemisphere specializes in processing spatial tasks and the pattern processing of messages. The left hemisphere is responsible for processing verbal messages and the local processing of messages.
Researchers found that in the brains of native Hebrew and English speakers, both hemispheres are independently involved in the task of reading. Neither side is dependent on the other. In contrast, the study showed that for the Arabic readers, the right hemisphere was not able to function independently in the reading assignments without using the left hemisphere’s resources. The fact that Arabic script is so visually complex seems to ‘activate’ left-brain functions.
Using the left and right sides of the brain at once is not a natural process for English readers. Learning Arabic can help learners engage their left hemispheres. Therefore, Arabic learning should be encouraged in the way we encourage other intellectual activities, such as chess, which require higher-than-average cerebral activity.
By developing your left hemisphere, you can become a better analytical thinker and logistician. Someone who attempts to develop the left side of their brain may become more rational, detail-oriented, and better at communicating with words–either written or verbal.
Learning a Tonal Language
Mandarin is another one of those level 5 complexity languages. Even though it takes a significant amount of time to learn, learning the Mandarin comes with significant long-term cognitive benefits.
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language in which the same basic sounds can refer to vastly different things based on the tone with which it is spoken. For example, in Mandarin, the syllable ‘ma’ may mean horse, scold, hemp, or mother based on its tone. In English, a non-tonal language, tone can convey emotional information about the speaker, but not the meaning of a word.
Chinese researchers, led by Jianqiao Ge at Peking University, found that these differences between Mandarin and English change the way the brain’s networks function. In their study, they investigated the differences between the language networks of native speakers of tonal and non-tonal languages.
In the study, both groups of speakers showed activation of the brain’s typical areas for speech, including Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas on the left side of the brain. However, researchers noticed some distinct differences. One of these differences was an activation in an area of the brain’s right hemisphere found only in Mandarin speakers. Because Mandarin language speakers use intonation to denote different meanings of specific words, this leads to the activation of both right and left sides of the brain.
People who speak English only use the left side of the brain, the classic go-to region for speech. Therefore, learning a language like Mandarin enhances brain size and capacity, causing the mind to work faster and more efficiently as an entire network.
Learning written Mandarin, particularly the thousands of Mandarin characters, develops motor skills while also keeping the mind sharp. The Chinese writing system is unique and represents a unique style of writing, while English is linear and written from left to right. Chinese characters are structurally complex and are written in four directions: left and right, up and down. The chronological movement of the fingers and hand to write a character stimulates neural activity in the writer’s thinking, working, and spatial memory.
Research conducted in New Zealand also shows a positive correlation between learning Mandarin and mathematical ability. This research demonstrates that different languages can influence the way our brains interpret non-language content, like numbers. For instance, the study showed that Mandarin speakers experience more activity in the spatial and visual brain center. Learning to write Mandarin involves skills such as counting, grouping, and ordering. It requires the learner to identify similarities and differences. These are also skills used in math.
Learning Mandarin can increase your memory. It’s easy for non-native Mandarin speakers to initially feel overwhelmed when thinking about mastering the language, particularly compared to others like French or Spanish. This overwhelmed feeling isn’t misplaced–learning Mandarin involves a good deal of memorization. Mandarin requires you to increase your memory in order to memorize its thousands of characters. This in itself is a large cognitive task.
It Doesn’t Matter When You Learn
What’s even more encouraging is that these bilingual or multilingual benefits still hold for those of us who are learning a new language as an adult. Edinburgh University researchers conducted a study with 853 participants that clearly showed that knowing another language is advantageous, regardless of when you learn it.
An All-Around Employee
All of this put together means that learning a language that requires both hemispheres of your brain can make you a better, more competitive, and productive person. As a ‘both-sides’ language learner, you’ll develop into a multi-faceted and versatile employee. Your brain will improve in overall executive functioning. You’ll be better able to manage and control cognitive processes like reasoning, focus, concentration, perception, and working memory. An increase in problem-solving abilities and mental flexibility can lead to a lifetime of improved creativity and total cognitive output.
MondlyWORKS ensures that you’ll make a lasting impact on your employees by impacting their long-term performance. Email us today at firstname.lastname@example.org and to find out more about taking MondlyWORKS for a test drive.