As Malaysians, most of us have had to learn to communicate in more than one language.
And we can switch very fluidly between the three dominant languages of our country. For example, “Dei, can tapau mi goreng for me not?”
A line that would make any grammatical expert cringe, but at the same time the perfect display of how different languages flow together harmoniously in our everyday speech. We as a multilingual country often take this for granted.
Remember in school when we complained about taking Malay, English and sometimes Mandarin or Tamil classes?
Well, you’ll be glad to know that the struggles we went through, to master those languages for our SPMs paid off. And here are the three ways it did.
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE IMPROVES ATTENTION
The real trick to speaking two languages is the ability to suppress one of those languages at a given moment. This linguistic skill is essentially cultivated with attention (NprEd, 2016).
So when you avoid speaking Mandarin in front of your English speaking friends, or switch to Malay when you’re with another group, you’re essentially performing skills called “inhibition” and “task switching.” This is the executive function of your brain kicking into action.
Bilinguals generally display better executive function than monolinguals. They are more attentive and less easily distracted. Also they’ve been found to be more capable of switching from one task to another. Time to thank our primary school teachers now, don’t you think?
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE DEVELOPS EMPATHY
When children pick up two languages at a young age, their brains have not yet been lateralize. Unlike adults, whose brains have organized to performing certain functions in the left or right hemisphere, children’s brains have not yet become as ordered.
Their higher brain plasticity at the time allows them to use both hemispheres to learn and process language. Which is why when learned at a young age, children pick up languages faster and develop more holistic grasps on its social and emotional content. As a result, bilingual kids pick up on social cues faster.
This is evident when young kids learn to switch languages when talking to their friends in school and when they come home to their families. We learn to use different languages at different occasions when talking to different people. And that, my friends is a skill often overlooked.
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE IS GREAT FOR YOUR BRAIN
The linguistic workout that goes on in the brains of bilinguals have shown possibility of delaying dementia for up to five years.
That is a great reason for us to pick up a new language. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. A brain-imaging study on adolescents that just recently picked up a second language shows similar changes in brain structure when compared with those who are bilingual from birth. So, no matter how old you are when you pick up a second language, you’ll reap its benefits.
NOT TOO LATE TO START!
Learning a new language doesn’t necessarily makes us smarter, but, it does keeps our brains healthy, complex and active. So, wait no longer, spice up that brain of yours by picking up a new language today!