There are many things you could be doing to keep healthy: exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and a balanced diet being the usual top recommendations. And there is definitely a reason for these to be at the top of the list. But there is one other lifestyle change to benefit your health which rarely gets mentioned: learning a new language. The most obvious reason for this is that most healthy living guides focus on your physical well-being while learning a language is more like crossfit for your brain.
But, as the saying goes “Healthy mind, healthy body”, so it pays to put as much effort into preserving your cognitive capabilities as your physical ones. And there is plenty of evidence that speaking more than one language will help both your quality of life now and down the road.
A full-body workout for your brain
As plenty of public awareness campaigns and common sense have told us, keeping active is vital for preserving your physical well-being as you get older. But the same applies to your mind. And there are few better ways of engaging your brain as fully as learning a new language. From improving your memory, your multitasking skills, and even attention span, being bilingual comes with a laundry list of cognitive benefits.
This is because speaking a language is, in fact, rather complex. As children, it takes us several years of intense observation combined with constant trial-and-error to master our native tongue. Now imagine voluntarily embarking on that journey again.
As a result, you’ll expand your memory to fit twice as many vocabulary items. You’ll end up needing to switch between two languages fighting for attention in the back of your head, improving your general multitasking skills in the process, and that same activity also sharpens your attention.
As with physical exercise, this kind of brain workout has both short- and long-term benefits. You can start reaping the rewards from improved cognitive capabilities as soon as you start learning a language, but the benefits can also last long into the future.
Avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s
Once you’ve improved your target language so far as to consider yourself bilingual, you’ll also be much less likely to develop dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Thanks to that brain workout they’ve been getting from improving their language skills, brains of bi- and multilingual people have better connectivity in certain areas that help shield against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
But even in the unfortunate case of developing dementia, bilingual people still seem to be at an advantage. According to a study carried out among 650 dementia patients, those who spoke several languages developed the disease up to five years after their monolingual counterparts.
So, in return for spending just a couple of hours each week honing your language skills, you’d get rewarded with not only a limited risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also delay the onset of these illnesses by several years.
Enhanced recovery from injuries
It’s a sad fact of life that bad things sometimes simply happen. Unfortunately, this may also apply to you and your brain. But, even in the case of an unexpected brain injury (a stroke, in layman’s terms), bilingual people are at an advantage.
Still stemming from that improved brain flexibility thanks to long language training, people speaking two or more languages have a markedly better chance of successfully recovering from a stroke. According to one study, you might be even twice as likely to regain full control of your faculties after suffering a brain injury if you are fluent in more than one language. And this is even after taking into account other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure!
Improve your standard of living
“Wealth makes health” is a poignant but accurate saying in the healthcare field, which refers to the sad correlation of low income and bad health. To highlight, Americans in the highest income bracket can expect to live around six years longer than their poor counterparts. Extrapolating from this statistic, however, you can easily claim that climbing up the social ladder is one of the best things to do for your health.
This is another aspect where speaking several languages will benefit you greatly.
Not only are bi- and multilingual people more likely to graduate high school and receive higher education, they’re also at an advantage on the job market. This probably comes as no surprise, as most employers regularly list speaking a foreign language as an important consideration when making hiring decisions, securing you better job opportunities and a more fulfilling career. As such, you’re more likely to land the job you want if you’re able to speak a second language, in addition to earning a higher wage than even graduates from the STEM fields.
Make friends and live longer
Good close ties with your friends and family are another aspect of life closely related to a long, healthy life. According to some research, the lack of strong relationships might be as bad for you as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. A shocking statistic indeed, until you remember that humans are social creatures, who desperately need others around them.
And this is where speaking several languages, again, comes in exceedingly handy.
What better way of expanding your social circle than learning to communicate with a whole set of people in their native language. In addition to enriching yourself with insight into another culture, becoming fluent opens up a wealth of opportunities in making new, lifelong friends. Throw in the option for romance and learning a new language really starts to seem like the best investment for your future.
There are many things we all do every day to lead a healthy life: we choose to take the stairs instead of the lift, we avoid eating junk food for every meal, we choose water over a Coke. We make these tiny changes in our everyday life because we know that somewhere down the line, we’ll reap the benefits from decisions made today.
While these decisions have to do with your physical health, it’s as important to pay attention to your mental health.
In that aspect, however, few things are as useful as learning a new language. You can start seeing changes in your cognitive capabilities as soon as you start – learning new vocabulary will improve your memory from day one and you can start making friends right away – but many of the benefits of being bilingual only reveal themselves much further in the future. From delaying dementia and staving off Alzheimer’s to a more efficient recovery from strokes, speaking several languages truly is an investment into both today and tomorrow.
Liisi is a lifelong learner whose love for languages got started at an early age. These days, you’ll most likely find her improving her own language skills, teaching, or helping others like her pursue their passion for language learning through helping them find private language teachers.