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The Bilingual Brain: Benefits and Befuddlement

Photo: wikimedia

By Crabby McSlacker

My latest folly: I’m trying to learn a new language. Spanish! Which among other uses, might come in handy for a pair of snowbirds always on the lookout for warmer climates to flee to during winters.

But I did not study Spanish in school, or in any other setting ever. I’m starting from absolute scratch. And yeah, I did spend many years in California, where Spanish is widely spoken. But my brain was completely impervious! None of it ever registered. Even the annoying ad campaign for Taco Bell didn’t manage to teach me the meaning of “Yo Quiero Taco Bell.” How could “Yo” mean “I” anyway? It should mean you for heaven’s sake.

So I’m only a couple of months into it, and I’m well aware that the whole “maybe I could learn Spanish” thing is, in many ways, a stupid idea. It could so easily turn into just another temporary diversion I’ve taken up and then later abandoned when something else new and shiny comes along.

Plus: I’m 57. I’m already starting to struggle to find words in my first language. Every new Spanish word I try to memorize is just a brand new chance for my brain to say WTF? Where the hell do you think I’m going to put this?

And yet…

I’m kinda getting a kick out of it and it may even be good for my brain!

Research: Bilingualism Benefits Cognitive Functioning in a Bazillion Ways, and May Even Delay Dementia in Old People!

I won’t go through it study by study, but by going through the hell of learning a new language, you apparently reshape your brain and gain all kinds of bad-ass benefits in attention, intellectual functioning, sensory processing, memory, creativity, empathy, and many other things I’m probably forgetting. (Because I haven’t gotten bilingual yet.)

But don’t you have to learn a second language when you’re young?

No! Research says even when you learn a second language in adulthood, it confers all kinds of benefits and may stave off cognitive decline.

Here are a few random links:

From the NIH: Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

Research on Language Learning Benefits (mostly kid focused but whatever)

Learning Second Language Slows Brain Aging (via The BBC who hopefully will forgive the Americanization of “Ageing” but it just looked too weird).

And a blog post summarizing some research on language learning cognitive benefits.

What Sucks About Learning a New Language

It’s really really hard. Or at least for me it is.

Sure, the fantasy of quick learning with minimal effort is quite compelling.  Because according to a dude named Andrew, citing a Spanish word frequency study, apparently it’s possible to understand almost 90% of spoken Spanish if you know just 1,000 words. And by 3,000 you’re up to almost 95%.

“Gosh, ” you might think. “So if I just learn 10 new words a day, in a year I’ll know over three thousand of words and be well on my way to total fluency!”

Yeah right.

Problem is, learning language is a lot more than memorizing vocabulary words. I mean, duh, right? I knew this in theory. But it’s fascinating to see how totally scrambled my brain can get trying to cope with new sounds, new word order, and in essence, a new way of seeing and categorizing the world.

For example, in Spanish, there is more than one form of the verb “to be” depending on whether something is considered a temporary or permanent state. Which is annoying enough, but then for some reason the time of day is considered permanent, while the location of the grocery store is not. Go figure.

And it seems there are a huge crapload of verb tenses and moods in Spanish, most of them yet on the horizon for me at this point, but speaking of “tense” and “moody…”


It can feel pretty darn overwhelming, especially since many of the most common verbs are irregular and require you to just suck it up and memorize them.

Which leads to another language-learning problem: flexible thinking is required. Apparently people who more rigid and want everything to be orderly and consistent tend to be early quitters when it comes to mastering a new language. So many of the “rules” you learn turn out to be riddled with arbitrary exceptions.

Me? I’m not such a flexible thinker.  I’m working on that. Plus? You can’t be a perfectionist and learn a new language. Or, well, you can be, but you’ll be miserable. Because you will say things wrong much more often than you say them right for a really long time. I’m trying to get used to feeling continually clueless.

But all that said…

What’s Pretty Awesome About Attempting to Learn a New Language As An Old Fart

I’m not taking an official class or seeking credit of any sort, so I have no deadlines to worry about.  I can learn on my own schedule and let my own curiosity direct my attention and efforts.

And holy guacamole, I’m SO much more curious about everything than I was as a kid in school! (I attempted to learn French but never got very far).

I have a much more energetic curiosity about how the grammar rules work, what the words mean, and what strange lingual contortions you need to master to make the right sounds come out.  I really, really, really want to know!

But it’s more than that: I’m also finding myself fascinated by the learning process itself. Discovering what engages me or doesn’t, what frustrates or calms me, thinking about how my brain is changing (or not), pondering philosophical questions about languages and world view and seeing signs of progress, however minimal… it’s all incredibly diverting.

Another great thing? There are so many more resources out there for language learning than when I was a kid, many of them completely FREE.  Hooray for public libraries and the interwebs!

My goal is to learn enough grammar and vocabulary to be able to start watching Spanish TV, to listen to music, to read books and websites and comic books whatever I can find that’s entertaining.

image via x-ray delta one
And eventually I aim to start speaking and interacting with actual humans. There are a bunch of language-exchange websites that allow you to skype with native speakers: you help them with English, they help you with language you want to learn.

Why not just jump right in now and really challenge myself? Eh, no. I don’t learn well by being totally confused. I’m not ready for uncurated language immersion yet, and I ain’t stressing about it.

In the meantime, I’m taking it slowly but consistently, spending probably an average of 30-60 minutes a day, most but not all days of the week. For now I’ve settled on the Pimsleur series, courtesy of my local public library (otherwise it’s pricey), plus I recently discovered the entertaining videos of Catalina Moreno Escobar. She speaks slowly and clearly enough that I can usually understand her, plus she’s totally adorable. Below is a cute sales pitch for her app or whatever, but she has tons of videos on her Practiquemos Youtube channel for free.

And I also google a lot of grammar and vocabulary questions, because the Pimsleur folks are really shitty about telling you what the rules are, and they work with a fairly small number of vocabulary words. (Though they excel at getting you in the habit of blurting things out constantly and not just passively reading and listening. The trick for me is going off for walks in secluded enough locations that I can blurt unselfconsciously).

Anyway, so far, it’s all keeping me pretty entertained, and who knows? Maybe I’m doing a good thing for my aging brain.

Are any of you bilingual? Or attempting to learn a new language?

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About Patrick Ireland

My name is Patrick Ireland, living in the Philippines with my wife and two daughters. I have been studying the web for over a decade. Now that I am 60 years old, I am starting to apply some of the knowledge that I have gained. "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to never stop questioning." -Einstein.

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