Benefits of learning a new language

There is a myriad of benefits to learning a new language, scientifically proven cognitive benefits, as well as more subtle socioeconomic ones, ranging from being able to talk to the cute exchange student to getting that promotion. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. From the numerous quotes about languages out there, the one below stroke a chord. Holmes’ words aptly captured what I always noticed.

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The age of Aquarius has brought an interesting list of new words to the English Language, among which are: Bestie, Bromance, Unfriend, Unfollow, Gig Economy, Deep State, Arab Spring, Manspreading, Mansplaining, Manscaping, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Hashtag, Bingeable, Selfie, Crowdfunding, Ghost (as in ending a relationship without warning), And a collection of tech giants, Google became a verb, and others a noun, like YouTuber. The modern human is therefore, rebellious, humanitarian and heavily into technology. We are also able to call out gender biases, which doesn’t mean we’ll ever be to rectify them but at least we’re aware of them.

It is important to note that the English Language by itself does not represent the whole world. That being said, it is widely acceptable that most of these words will have their own translations and the tech ones are likely to stay the same. And they stay the same because they are computer friendly, like Unfriend and Unfollow which are new to the English Language too. Furthermore, the existence of these translations enables the transition of the thought behind it.

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Rita Mae Brown

In my experience languages can tell us the history and psyche of a nation. In the summer of 2020 as the world went into lockdown (there’s a word we’ll soon see added to the list) I decided to study Russian, only to be bombarded by French words. Which was a real case of serendipity because French is my fifth language so I finished my course early and with flying colors. I knew of the Franco-Russian Alliance, and the historical ties between France and Russia but I never knew the extent of it.

It turns out modern Russian is littered with French words, everything from engineering {barak (hutment), remont (repair)} to warfare (batal’yon, garnizon, eskadra) the arts {aktyor, antreprenyor (artistic manager), afisha (poster), balet, vodevil’, zhonglyor (juggler), rezhissyor (art director), shedevr (masterpiece)}, and of course, food soop, bulion (broth), marmelad, rulet (roll), sosiska, krevetka (prawn), soous, kompot. And so many more like goverment manyovr, byurokratiya, departament, gubernator, lifestyle and fashion, kafe, restoran, byuro, buduar, kushetka (couch), mebel’ (furniture), garderob, botinok (shoe), galosha (rubber shoe), pal’to (overcoat), zhilet (vest), tuzhurka (everyday clothes) and, shapka (cap).

As it happens historical insight is not the only benefit of learning new languages, Bilingualism affects white matter[1], a fatty substance that covers axons, which are the main projections coming out from neurons to connect them to other neurons. White matter allows messages to travel fast and efficiently across networks of nerves and to the brain.

Bilingualism promotes the integrity of white matter as you age.

It gives you more neurons to play with, and it strengthens or maintains the connections between them so that communication can happen optimally.

And that’s not all. Bilingual Brains Have Higher Volume of Grey Matter, Study Suggests [2]. The mental effort it takes to switch between multiple languages appears to reshape the brain, boosting grey matter volume in regions responsible for tasks such as learning and short-term memory retention, new research suggests.

Grey matter is on the outside of your brain and the inside of your spinal cord. It controls movement, learning, memory, emotions and language. Grey matter processes information. Then it hands the results over to white matter. It’s found on the inside of your brain and the outside of your spinal cord. The white matter transmits the information to different parts of your body. 

Grey matter needs a constant supply of oxygen to process information. Your brain uses about 20% of the oxygen in your blood [3]. Since so much thinking goes on inside your grey matter, it uses a lot of that oxygen. In fact, grey matter consumes over 90% of the oxygen used by your brain!

Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.

So it’s not surprising that people with more grey matter have better cognitive function. In other words, they think better.

Locations in the brain of white matter and grey matter as well as the axons that connect them together
via Wikimedia Commons

Axons are thin extensions that transmit information between neurons. A myelin sheath covers the axons in white matter. Myelin is a fatty protein that insulates the axons. It also boosts the signals sent by the white matter to different parts of your body. 

A third study [4] found that subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages.

And fourth study funded by NIH [5] showed that bilinguals switch tasks faster than monolinguals.

Another study [6] found that second language learning induces grey matter volume increase in people with multiple sclerosis. Grey matter volume (GMV) decline is a frequent finding in multiple sclerosis (MS), the most common chronic neurological disease in young adults. Increases of GMV were detected in language related brain regions following second language (L2) learning in healthy adults. Effects of L2 learning in people with MS (pwMS) have not been investigated so far.

This study[7] reports significant effects of immersive sequential bilingualism on the shape of the basal ganglia and the thalamus. Importantly, our participants were highly proficient and highly immersed learners of L2 English, while the pattern of effects resembles the previously reported pattern for lifelong simultaneous bilinguals.


Age is the greatest risk factor for cognitive impairment. Fortunately, acquiring a new language also helps to stave off cognitive decline and mental agingRecent research[8] shows that multilingual adults experienced the first signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia at a later age compared to monolinguals. They also researched other variables like health, economic status, educational level, and gender, but none of them contributed as much as the number of languages that person spoke.

Results: We found that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences.

Conclusions: The present data confirm results from an earlier study, and thus we conclude that lifelong bilingualism confers protection against the onset of AD. The effect does not appear to be attributable to such possible confounding factors as education, occupational status, or immigration. Bilingualism thus appears to contribute to cognitive reserve, which acts to compensate for the effects of accumulated neuropathology.

Cognitive Benefits of learning a new language early

In addition to meeting the needs of future students, language learning has been shown to greatly enhance student performance across the curriculum. (Book sources below) Language learning has been shown to improve a student’s cognitive function, including, but not limited to:

  • Enhanced Problem Solving Skills
  • Improved Verbal and Spatial Abilities
  • Improved Memory Function (long & short-term)
  • Enhanced Creative Thinking Capacity
  • Better Memory
  • More Flexible and Creative Thinking
  • Improved Attitude Toward the Target Language and Culture

These cognitive benefits of language learning have been shown to enhance student performance producing:

  • Higher standardized test scores
  • Higher reading achievement
  • Expanded student vocabulary in native language (English)
  • Higher academic performance at the college level  

Financial benefits of speaking a second language

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

And the limits of your career too, it seems. Another study[9] found that the demand for bilingual workers is rising.

While U.S. employers posted roughly 240,000 job advertisements aimed at bilingual workers in 2010, that figure had more than doubled by 2015, growing to approximately 630,000. The share of postings seeking bilingual employees also increased, with the portion of online listings targeting bilingual individuals rising by 15.7 percent in the same time period.

Employers are increasingly looking for workers who can speak Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic.

Employers posted more than three times more jobs for Chinese speakers in 2015 than they had just five years earlier. During the same time period, the number of U.S. job ads listing Spanish and Arabic as a desired skill increased by roughly 150 percent .

Some employers have particularly strong demand for bilingual workers. More than a third of the positions advertised by Bank of America in 2015 were for bilingual workers. At the health insurer Humana, meanwhile, almost one in four online posts asked for such skills—including almost 40 percent of the company’s listings for registered nurses.

There is a growing need for bilingual workers at both the low and higher-ends of the skill spectrum.

Fifteen of the 25 occupations (60 percent) with the highest demand for bilingual workers in 2015 were open to individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree. These included jobs as tax preparers, customer service representatives, and medical assistants. Meanwhile, looking at the “prestige” of individual positions—an academic stand-in for income level—the fastest growth in bilingual listings from 2010 to 2015 was for so-called “high prestige” jobs, a category including financial managers, editors, and industrial engineers.

By Rebeka Goodman

Additional Sources:

Benefits career-wise:




Early Learning


Armstrong, P. W., & Rogers, J. D. (1997). Basic skills revisited: The effects of foreign language instruction on reading, math, and language arts. Learning Languages, 2(3), 20-31.

Hamayan, E. (1986). The need for foreign language competence in the U.S. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearing House on Languages and Linguistics.

Larson-Hall, J. (2008). Weighing the benefits of studying a foreign language at a younger starting age in a minimal input situation. Second language research, 24(1), 35-63.

Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic and cognitive benefits of French immersion. Canadian Modern Language Review, 5, 605-627.

Morgan, C. (1993). Attitude change and foreign language culture learning. Language Teaching, 26(2), pp. 63-75.

Sanz, C. (2000). Bilingual education enhances third language acquisition: Evidence from Catalonia. Applied psycholinguistics, 21(01), 23-44.

Stewart, J. H. (2005). Foreign language study in elementary schools: Benefits and implications for achievement in reading and math. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(3), 11-16.

%d bloggers like this: