How do you say well-rounded? Learning new languages offers more benefits than you might ever expect, and new tech is making it easier – and more fun – than ever!
Three months before launching into space, Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes was given one final task: learn Russian.
After years of training to work in space, the Mission Specialist learned his ride to the International Space Station would be a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He would have to learn a whole new systems technology prior to launch – which meant that he had to learn Russian. “Learning a language is different from learning a technical subject,” says Pontes. “You need to connect with the people, feel the culture and live each emotion with them. Language comes as a consequence of lived experience.”
I remember my first “lived experience” with a foreign language – long before Google Translate™, smartphones or even the internet. I was 15, it was spring break, and when most families went south to Florida, we drove 18 hours north to Québec. The snow was flying sideways when we pulled into a remote gas station, where an elderly fur-capped mechanic shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “Désolé – pas d’anglais.”
My father ushered me into the cold. “Go practice your French!”
I stood silent for a full minute before remembering how to say “gas” and “please.”
I pronounced the words with nasal earnestness – l’essence, s’il vous plaît? – and the man smiled, grabbed the nozzle, flipped open the gas tank and filled the car. A wonderful rush followed – this stranger had understood my own abstract foreign noise. It felt like magic and, suddenly, the whole world seemed open and available to me.
Learning to translate is not the only goal, it’s also creating connections with language without having to rely on your native tongue. Photo: Maskot / Cavan Images
“Learning another language is like having a subtle superpower,” says Gabriel Wyner, who mastered seven different languages before founding Fluent Forever. The mobile-based language-learning app broke crowdsourcing records on Kickstarter® before launching in 2018. Breaking away from rote memorization and the kind of back-and-forth translation from English so many of us remember from school, Fluent Forever focuses on thinking in a new language, starting with image recognition and response.
“Language learning has shifted from translation-based to meaning-based,” says Matt Kostakis, a Spanish language teacher in New York City. “A lot of these newer apps try to get you to create connections with language without having to rely on your native tongue.” In other words, the new wave in language apps mimics a lived cultural experience, only on your phone or device.
As a teacher, Kostakis incorporates language apps into his weekly curriculum. “We do this Duolingo® challenge with my students, where each of us signs up for a language we’ve never learned, and then we see how far we can get,” he says. “Middle school kids love competition.”
Duolingo takes a video game approach to language-learning, with points, levels, daily streaks and achievements. The entire structure of the app encourages consistent use, with the user making commitments to study from five to 30 minutes a day. In return, Duolingo shows learners their own progress in the language.
Language apps allow users to only have to make commitments to study from five to 30 minutes a day. Photo: Westend61 / Cavan Images
“The apps are popular because they are gratifying,” says Kostakis. “It creates an immersive environment in which you feel successful.” Over 200 million users have downloaded Duolingo, which now offers dozens of different language programs for English speakers. The app is also free, setting it apart from other interactive language programs, some of which cost hundreds of dollars. “Our primary goal is to reduce inequality in education through technology,” says Duolingo spokesperson Michaela Tron, noting that users range from wealthy Americans to kids in the developing world.
It’s understood that knowing multiple languages is attractive to both employers and universities. But less obvious are the psychological benefits, of which there are many. A scientific study of the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, for example, not only found that fast-paced language study led to brain growth, but that specific parts of the brain benefited in correspondence with the language learners’ skill level. Another recent study found that lifelong bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia by up to nearly five years. Cognitive ability and mental focus, improved memory, and confidence are all proven benefits of learning a new language, while multilingual people are also better decision-makers and problem-solvers. They also perform better on standardized tests – even in math.
Learning a new language can even make you a kinder person. Research has shown that exposure to new languages can promote effective communication by enhancing our “perspective taking,” a fundamental component of empathy. In other words, it can help you see the world through others’ eyes.
After moving to Chile, author Eileen Smith found Spanish grammar expressed a whole new way of thinking. “The words might get you to the same destination, but on very different paths,” she says. “In English, you might say, ‘I like Tom,’ but in Spanish, you say, ‘Tom pleases me.’ The English gives you the idea that ‘I’ am the most important – that I actively like Tom – but Spanish is more passive, where something reaches me, but exists independently.”
Learning a new language can help you see the world through others’ eyes. Photo: Jules Slutsky / Cavan Images
Kostakis agrees with the sentiment. “Language learning unlocks a different way of seeing the world,” he says. “In the Kaqchikel language of Guatemala, the word for life is linked to the concept of debt. The Maya believe that life is loaned to us – we have to invest in it, we have debts to repay and we inherit so much from our ancestors. Language is always larger than just a word.”
While on assignment in the Australian Outback, I struggled to interview the Anangu, the aboriginal people who live around Uluru. It was the beginning of their summer and unbearably hot, so I found refuge in a rural, air-conditioned library. There on the shelf was a dictionary for the Anangu’s language, Pitjantjatjara, of which there remain fewer than 4,000 native speakers. Flipping through the pages, I found the word for the current season: wiltjanyina, or “the time of year that you first start to sit in the shade of the tree.” Knowing that single word was like peeking into a 40,000-year-old culture.
The next morning, I sat in the shade of a large tree and waited. Soon after, I was joined by several Anangu women who sat down beside me in the shade. I offered a few awkward introductions recited from my library notes and they laughed, then patiently taught me enough Pitjantjatjara to break down some of the barriers I had experienced. In a single day, we connected through language.
Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” At a time when mobile technology often seems to be killing face-to-face human interaction, language-learning apps have the power to facilitate cross-cultural communication and improve the knowledge, mental capacity and well-being of hundreds of millions of humans. Indeed, the new tech trend represents a kind of mental revolution that could benefit everyday life, international relations, business, education and science – even space exploration.