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Importance and cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language

Cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language

To have another language is to possess a second soul.

There is a point in life when you come across a question and keep thinking about it for so long that it becomes a part of your identity. It defines how you think. In my case I experienced it when I had completed almost one year in my first job. Steve jobs said ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’. I hungered for more in life.

Might be the complacency of working in a PSU bank did not whet my appetite. Since childhood I was attracted to literature and that’s what I wanted to major in college. Now that I was financially independent, I did not see any reason why I should not pursue my childhood dream. So I chose to be a bit different by opting to learn a foreign language which not only kept me in close proximity to literature but also favoured my other hobby of learning about a different culture.

Benefits of multilingualism

Even though the Queen’s English is the global language, it does not mean that it enjoys the status of vox populi. Adding another language to your skill set can help with your career prospects, corporate success, college admission, study experience and personal development. In fact bilingualism is passé and multilingualism is the lingua franca now. So let me present the advantages of learning a new language.

Cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language

Physiological studies show that individuals having knowledge of two or more languages can perform better in tasks that require focus, inhibition and short term memory , collectively known as  ‘executive control ‘. Scientists from Georgetown University Medical Centre, U.S.A, compared grey matter volume between adult bilinguals and monolinguals and found out that bilinguals possessed more grey matter as compared to monolinguals in the frontal and parietal regions of brain that is responsible for executive control functions. This phenomenon is not only restricted to young learners but also to people who begin their study of foreign language as adults and achieve native fluency like young learners , and hence reap the same mental benefits.

1. Become a smarter individual

Language acquisition challenges an individual to recognize new characters, written scripts, vocabulary, intonation etc which improves the functioning of brain. This activates the neural networks and your ability to negotiate meaning. In fact a study conducted by Illinois State University has shown that students who know foreign language perform better in standardized tests as compared to their monolingual peers in both mathematics as well as verbal section.

2. Boost your memory power

Exercise improves one’s muscle strength. In the same way language learning serves as an exercise for the brain muscles. Memorising and applying the rules of grammar and improvising one’s vocabulary list improves overall memory strength which makes multiple language learners better at remembering shopping lists , phone numbers , names and directions as per a study conducted by University of New Brunswick Canada.


3. Improve your multitasking skills

A research experiment conducted by Pennsylvania State University on participants using a driving simulator while doing different and distracting tasks at the same time, showed that multilingual speakers made fewer errors while driving. Researchers attribute this to the existence of cross – language interaction and competition at every stage of language learning, from words to grammar to speech. Language learners need to switch between two systems of speech, writing and structure. This juggling skill makes them adept multitaskers as they can easily switch between different language structures.

4. Improved observation and perception

Good language learners always look at clues to understand how a language system works. They perform better in tasks that require conflict management.  In the experiment Stroop task, where people see a word and are asked to name the color of the word’s font, it was observed that bilinguals were able to correctly name the color more quickly when the color and the word did not match (e.g., when the word “red” was printed in blue). This requires the cognitive system to employ additional resources to ignore the irrelevant word and focus on the relevant color. This ability to ignore competing perceptual information and focus on the relevant aspects of the input is called inhibitory control. Bilingual people often perform better than monolingual people at tasks that tap into inhibitory control ability which means they can focus on relevant information by editing the irrelevant ones. They cannot be easily misled and hence stand by their judgment when they are surrounded by so many lucrative advertisements and publicity.

5. Better decision making skills

Language learners need to understand the subtle nuances and implications in its vocabulary and pronunciation. This can only be done when one thinks in that language which subconsciously affects our brain and moral judgment. As a result bilinguals are more confident about their choices and decisions after thinking it over in the second language.

6. Delays Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Psychologists from York University in Toronto tested about 450 patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. Half of the patients were bilingual and the rest spoke one language. It was observed that even though everyone had similar levels of cognitive impairment, the bilingual patients had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later. This is because bilingual people have to constantly exercise their brain system to prevent two languages from interfering from one another as they sort through multiple options for each word and switch back and forth between the two languages. This results in greater exercise of the brain’s executive control system which happens to be the most important part of a human’s mind. This evidence is not only restricted to young learners who grew up learning a second language but also to late learners who started learning a foreign language later in life.

7. Improve your own native language

Quoting Sir Geoffrey Willans “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”While learning a foreign language you focus on the mechanics of the language like sentence structure, conjugations of verb, grammar and pronunciation. You become more adept at distinguishing meaning from discreet sounds. This not only sharpens your language acquisition skills but also makes you more fluent in your native language. For example approximately 60% of English vocabulary stems from French words. This not only improved my vocabulary but the grammar complexities challenged me to revisit my middle school English grammar. As a teacher I could relate better to students from ethnic backgrounds or students who are complete beginners because I went through the same process of being a student recently.
Also after learning one foreign language it becomes extremely easy to learn another language independently as you become well versed with language acquisition techniques with a greater awareness of grammar, syntax, phonetics etc. Your brain’s muscle memory is strengthened which allows your brain to identify the techniques to learn a language and simplify them into a series of steps.

Personal benefits of learning a second language


1. Become more creative

Not only will you learn about the culture, cuisine, movies and literature but also develop an appreciation for them. You will enjoy literature more as you will understand the original text rather than relying upon translated version of the text where the original essence is lost. Apart from this learning a foreign language helps you to experiment with new words and phrases. It forces you to look out for alternate words when you are not able to recall the original one that you intended to use which improves your skills in divergent thinking, i.e. the art of identifying multiple solutions to a single problem.

2. Boost your self – confidence

Whenever a new skill is mastered, confidence level improves because you teach yourself to believe in yourself to achieve anything. You set new goals and try diligently to achieve them. The same applies to language learning also. Not only you become more confident but also more open minded and ready to embrace new set of ideas, culture and people. You all will agree that confident people are more interesting than those who are confused about themselves. Achieving something releases endorphins and therefore bilinguals are happier, more impressive and of course romantic.

Career prospects and Courses

Knowledge of foreign language can offer a plethora of opportunities. The opportunities can open up depending on your level of engagement with the language. As you deepen your engagement by pursuing higher levels, you will realize that opportunities to study and work are incredibly vast. Companies and BPO have tie ups with Max Mueller Bhavan , Allaince Française  and Instituto Hispania and come for campus interviews for recruitment.

Salaries could range from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1 lakh a month and even an interpreter can earn around Rs.1000 – Rs.2000 per day in translation work. Knowing a foreign language is definitely an asset, but it should not be the only base for career. In fact people from all walks of life like doctors, engineers and MBAs are upgrading their language skills for business success.

In today’s hyper connected world and globalised economy potential employers consider this as valuable in an employee’s skill set. In this age of start – ups, companies are breaking into new markets and they are always in a lookout for people who can negotiate with manufacturers of other countries and communicate with customers who don’t speak your native language. Also the fact that your ability to speak a second language clearly indicates that you are driven and motivated to learn new skills.

Earlier the market demand for learning a foreign language depended on external factors like international and economic ties with a particular country. For example when Sino – Indian relationship was strained, Mandarin was not a popular choice. At that point of time India had good relations with USSR which explains the popularity of Russian language at that point of time. When China and India’s economic relationship improved, so did the demand for that language and right now ‘Look East ‘is the recent phenomenon and Japanese, Korean and Chinese are the most sought after languages.

However the good thing now is that the demand for foreign language skills is also being driven by the domestic market and not the foreign market exclusively. Apart from MNCs, one can serve the government sector as foreign diplomats and can qualify for them via UPSC exams. Indian Armed Forces, RAW, paramilitary forces, embassies are other opportunities to research. The External Services division of All India Radio broadcasts transmissions in 27 languages out of which 15 are foreign. Hence one can also explore opportunities to work in print and electronic media.

Also international curriculum schools offer French, German, Spanish or Mandarin as one of their subjects as there is an increased awareness and demand by NRI as well as local parents who want their children to learn one of these languages. Max Mueller Bhavan has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with schools such as DPS, Vasant Kunj and Kendriya Vidyalaya to provide training to school teachers who teach German.

To pursue a language course one can enroll in a recognised institute such as Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute. Apart from this one can enroll for Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma courses from Delhi University. These degrees qualify the eligibility conditions to pursue a Master’s course in case a student does not possess a Bachelor’s degree in that language.

Different universities have different requirements. For example JNU does not mention any specific level to appear for its entrance exams. EFLU (English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad) requires a B1 level to appear for their entrance exams. Bangalore University directly admits students who have achieved C1 level in that language and have no entrance tests for their Masters Programme.

My personal experience as a foreign language student and teacher

When I started learning French five years back, I started it with the sole purpose of following my hobby. Language learning is one of my hobbies and I intend to learn German and dare myself with Japanese. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that I will convert my hobby into a full time career. Might be this unadulterated motive gave me the reason to continue.

Pursuing one’s hobby does require tenacity and like all relationships there won’t be sunny days always and reality will hit you especially if you are managing your work life as well as classes. Not only that you need to figure out time to practice apart from what is taught in the class. Most students drop or leave by the end of level 2 which is A2 level resulting in fewer students for level 3 , B1, level. As a result after qualifying my level A2, I had to wait for few months for a study batch to start off.

It never happened in my case and the batches that were formed clashed with my work timings, hence forcing me to hire a private tutor who compressed the entire syllabus in just 30 classes instead of the normal 200 hour programme that Alliançe offers. It was stressful not only because of the less number of classes but also there is a sharp increase in the level of difficulty from A2 to B1 level unlike that of A1 to A2 level .

However I pulled up, though I still feel that if I attended regular classes I could have performed better. I applied the same practice when I started level 5 which is C1 level as my work time did not suit my class time. I guess my earlier stint and language acquisition skills made me more confident and independent to take this step. Going through all this and now that I am learning German on my own, I can say it with certainty that you can learn a new language without joining any formal classes.

This does not mean that I am against classes. In fact given an opportunity I would any day prefer going to a class because it provides a good platform to mingle with new people who are on the same learning journey as that of yours apart from accessing the well resourced libraries and caféterias that these learning centres have.

However if you stay in a place where there is no such institute or class timings are not suitable, then I don’t see any reason not to pursue one’s hobby as the internet is flooded with materials for beginners to intermediate and advanced level learners.

After all as Paulo Coelho said ‘When you want something all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it’. So the path may be difficult but definitely not impossible and my next article would focus on tips to prevent language attrition and to accelerate language learning.
Image credit: Indian Express

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Yasmeen Hossain
About Yasmeen Hossain
Yasmeen Hossain left her banking job to become a school teacher. She shares her experiences, knowledge and views on the Indian education sector.

12 thoughts on “Importance and cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language”

  1. Hi Yasmeen,
    Lovely write-up. I was looking forward to this one. Last year when i started taking french classes , I was full with enuthsiasm. 2 months later, i started to face difficulty in grasping the language rules and structure. I kept going though….had to relocate thereafter. Lost touch with my class buddies and had to prepare alone for DELF A1. Now, Delf A1 is like a cake…you would know. Still i struggled, wasn’t disciplined enough. Prepared with full integrity for barely 3 days and cleared it with over 75%. I will be taking up A2 level soon and move further more ( you did insist :))
    I am sharing all these details because as wonderful it is to want to learn another langauge, with age it becomes difficult. Not impossible. Just difficult.
    The sooner we start, more the language grows on us. Isn’t it?
    My wife speaks 7 languages, can also read a few of them. All that from growing up in a diverse neighbourhood. No formal education in any of them except hindi and english. cool hun ! ; french is not one of them …yayy..

    You inspire me to continue …thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Shubham,
      Thanks for liking the article. I can relate a lot with you in this matter. Even I also had to change my job as well as city after my A2 level and had to wait for batches to form. I still remember the anxiety as well as thrill when I had to give my A1 exam. The excitement of starting something new was balanced by the nervousness when I had to appear for my speaking exam. Honestly speaking component used to be the most nerve wrecking moment for me and turned out to the most well performed in my case, might be because I used to give extra attention to that part. It is tough managing work, settling in a new city and continuing your studies. Hats off to you that you pulled off. Trust me A2 will seem more better as the exam pattern is quiet similar to A1 and I am sure you will do much better in A2.
      I do agree that with age it becomes a bit challenging to learn something new. Research on neuro plasticity has indicated this fact. But the brighter aspect is the more you learn new skills at an older age , the better your brain functions and you are open to ideas and resilience. After C1 level I can guarantee you that you will be in a situation to study another European language independently without any formal classes because by that level you will become a pro to figure out language acquisition skills.
      Bon chance et bonne continuation

  2. Hello Yasmeen,
    Thanks so much for the info. It’s really helpful. I’m a science graduate presently residing in Saudi Arabia. I want to teach international curriculum. Since I am considered as local candidate none of schools which I came across till now offered me any kind of benefits except transport. Can you please guide me how can I avail basic salary as well as benefits. Or should I opt for Indian schools here.
    Pls help as I have 4 dependent children I need at least education benefits and housing.

  3. Hi Yasmin Ma’am,

    I’m Ekta Sachdeva, B.a + B.ed integrated, 4 years of International school experience…willing to work in USA as a teacher, I handle pre primary. Need your advise.


  4. That was a very well written and insightful article .My question to you is that how do you work on the verbal communication aspect of learning a language incase you are not surrounded by speakers of that language?
    In the case of Mandarin, Japanese and Korean (which have characters not words) would it be better to actually travel to and learn them in the native countries ?

  5. Hi mam
    I am Jafir , mechanical engineering teacher in a reputed engineering college in India. I have 5 years of experience in teaching and Master degree in Thermal Engineering. What should I do for getting a teaching job in gulf/abroad?

  6. Hello Madam,
    I read your article, It is so informative and your replies to the questions are very helpful.
    I am a B-tech graduate from ECE background and I am a software professional in Hyderabad at present. I would like to change my career and aspire to become a productive teacher. I would like to take either science / English / Maths as my subjects. I have twin babies boy & girl 15 months old. I have plans of teaching abroad and enroll my kids in the same school I teach so I can fulfill my both dreams of teaching abroad and have a close monitor of my kids education. I don’t have prior experience except taking training sessions in my current IT company.
    From your article, I see multiple ways of upskilling and betterment of hiring chances when trying to teach abroad. I request your guidance in selecting the best root to achieve my goal. I am ready to change my profession and gain experience in local schools. Below is the summary of details which I request your suggestion:
    1) which is the best country to move on for children education can you please rate top 3? I am aspiring for Finland and know it is of very very very tough competition. I am ready to learn and prepare myself to survive the competition.
    2) I would like to know the expectations, qualifications, mandatory requirements and which subject is of high demand in Finland. What is the way to achieve qualification and requirements.
    3) Is there any possibility to work in same school I enroll my kids (Financially too)
    Your reply will help me a lot in taking biggest decision in my life.
    Thank you.

  7. Hello mam,
    Thats a lovely article ..I am a School Counsellor,in India for 7 years of work experience in international school,hav e done my M.Phil in student counselling . I also take guidance /life skill classes.
    Will I get a job in USA or Canada or UAE or I need to do some course to equip myself to be a suitable candidate for work related to my field?

  8. Hi Yasmeen,
    Your article was very helpful. I am aspirant to travel and teach abroad especially in China where there is so much demand seen. Currently working in a corporate sector I want to do something that is interesting and am passionate about. Most of the Chinese job sites that I came across requires TEFL certification. My question to you is being a fresher in this profession if I start now will I be able to get a job as most of the job opening require native speakers of english. like US, UK etc. and if I have to take up the TEFL classes would you suggest online or in-person classes. I dont fine any reputed institues in chennai except for British Council in which CELTA is taught. Let me know !! Thanks

  9. Hi,
    My name is Sanjay Dey, I live in Mumbai. I have done in Physics, I have 2 years of undergrad teaching experience, 2-year online teaching experience for American students, 7 years of A-level and IGCSE teaching experience and a year of IBDP and MYP teaching experience. I have attended 2 A-level certified training courses arranged by CIE. These were 3-day courses each.
    I do not have a teaching degree/B.ed.
    I want to work in Australia as a teacher. Will it be possible for me to get a sponsored teaching job there?
    If yes, kindly guide me through it. My email ID is

  10. Hello Mam Heartly Thanks for sharing effective knowledge. Mam My qualification is M.Sc. (chemistry)M.Ed. I have 16 years experience of maths -science teaching in secondary Gujarat government school. Mam I passed all exam in education like tat.htat.hmat. Mam I want to go U.K. For teaching in secondary devision. Please guide me which qualifications are needed me.And how I will go ? Mam tesol -tefl certificate is useful to me for u.k.


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