The Benefits of Learning a New Language (According to Experts)

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Large crowds rush to depart New York's Pennsylvania station before the start of the Labor Day holiday weekend on September 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Online language-learning programs like Duolingo, Babbel, and Rosetta Stone all claim to teach you a new language in record time. But do they deliver what they promise? We’ll get tips from linguists on how best to pick up a foreign tongue. And we want to hear from you: how has language fluency affected your world view?

Show Highlights

Speaking More than One Language is Becoming the Norm

"The United States is becoming an increasingly diverse and multilingual society already. Now, more than one-fifth of American households speaks a language other than English at home, and those numbers are growing. So in spite of this resistance, the change in the demographics of this country is clearly leading us to a more diverse and multilingual society, which is also the case outside the United States. Bilinguals and multilinguals are, in fact, the norm. It is very common in countries all over the world to grow up with two or more languages and then acquire additional languages later in life." - Viorica Marian

Multilingualism Leads to a Better Understanding of Yourself and Others:

"It gives you an understanding of your own thought processes. ... You begin to get aware that languages don't map onto each other neatly, that words aren't exact analogues of each other in different languages. Russian is not English in some fiendish code. Once you start to realize that, you realize other words are always possible, and you start to reflect on the way that you think and communicate. You understand yourself better as well as understand others better." - Marek Kahn

Multilingualism Offsets Dementia:

"One of the most striking outcomes of being bilingual or multilingual is a delayed onset of dementia and Alzheimer's in older individuals. If you speak another language, you will be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's likely four to six years later than if you're a monolingual, in part because you functionally compensate for the structural changes in your brain. Your experience of juggling multiple languages — simultaneously, all the time, throughout life — improves your executive function or at least translates to this ability to mitigate some of the cognitive decline associated with dementia later in life." - Viorica Marian

Yes, You Can Learn a Language Late in Life:

"As it turns out, we can learn a language at any point. The difference would be having an accent. Usually, if you do learn another language later in life after your articulatory system has already been set to your native language, you're more likely to have an accent throughout life. But as far as your vocabulary size and being able to communicate effectively in another language, that can be acquired at any age." - Viorica Marian

The Limitation of Language Apps

"Basically, these are great things for people to have and to work with and to provide a limited exposure to the language, but if you're going to really learn the language, in terms of being linguistically, culturally proficient, they're most likely not going to get you there." - Rick Kern

Interpersonal Connections are Key to Fluency

"Eventually, you do want to engage with someone and interact with someone. Maybe it's a coffee date with a person who speaks that language, maybe it's traveling to that country, maybe it's dating someone who speaks that language. There are multiple ways to to use a language to eventually attain [fluency.]" - Viorica Marian

Languages Give Your Brain a Workout Even When You're Not Speaking Them

"The mere fact that one knows another language is already influencing how your brain functions, because right now as I speak to you in English and you listen to me in English, all the other languages that you may know have to be controlled by your inhibitory control mechanisms, so you have to inhibit your Polish or your Portuguese or your Spanish or whatever the languages. ... So even when you are not using another language, your bilingualism gives your brain this workout. ... I can't think of any other cognitive skill that works in the same way, that constantly engages your cognitive control and executive function mechanism." - Viorica Marian

Exposing Kids to Languages has Benefits Beyond Linguistics:

"I think exposure to two different languages early in life is a good thing. It's not a confusing thing, as many parents still appear to believe. It may not have visible effects later on, but I think it probably helps a child to to be aware of languages, and — I think there is research on this — I think it helps young children to be able to concentrate on other people more, to listen to them, to be aware of the differences between them, because they have to work out who's speaking what language and how to respond to each particular individual. So I think it's very very good socially, whether or not it has a linguistic benefit later on." - Marek Kahn


Marek Kohn, author, "Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever"

Rick Kern, director, Berkeley Language Center; professor of French, UC Berkeley

Viorica Marian, professor of communication sciences and disorders, Northwestern University