My wife is Colombian, I grew up in Germany, and I now work in Philadelphia. As I like to joke, that gives me three good reasons to know a language other than English. But the truth is, recent research suggests that learning a new language, at any age, not only will enhance your next vacation or better prepare you for an upcoming business trip, it can also make you a better listener, boost your creativity, spur brain growth, and for some people, even delay Alzheimer's.
Each of these benefits stems from the various ways that language learning improves your brain's ability to focus. Learning a language physically changes your mind, ultimately making you a stronger, more creative thinker. So if your high school Spanish lessons are a buried memory or even if you're already bilingual and just want to find out what that skill is doing for you, here are five reasons why you should start learning a foreign language right now:
1. To improve your communication skills. The key here is consciousness. While most of us rarely think about the grammatical structures of our native tongue, learning a second language brings them into stark relief. When attempting to write or speak in a second language, you suddenly have to focus more on the order of words, your verb tenses, and parts of speech. And in recognizing how sentences are constructed in a second language, you can become more aware of how they're arranged in your first language. That more conscious approach can help you clean up your writing and your speech and help you communicate more clearly.
2. To become a better listener. A study at Northwestern University showed that bilingual individuals could better pick out a speaker's voice amidst distracting noises. This superior "attention, inhibition, and encoding of sound," as the researchers put it, can help you better focus on what a client, boss, or employee is saying. The ability to listen closely is a valuable skill that can translate into a real dollar value. Look at IKEA, which attributes its record 2012 revenues and growing appeal in part to its ability to listen to customers and then respond accordingly.
3. To boost your creativity. Every time you speak a second language is an exercise in creativity. While words in your native language might string themselves together naturally, requiring little effort on your part, constructing sentences and meaning in a second language often requires more conscious thought. A study published last year found that learning a foreign language enhanced people's fluency, elaboration, originality, and flexibility, the four scales measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Researchers concluded that learning a second language improved speakers' planning, cognitive flexibility, and working memory, three pillars on which creativity is built.
4. To sharpen your mind. Learning a second language can beef up your brain's executive control center -- the hub that helps manage your cognitive processes. A second language offers a strong exercise regimen for the executive control center, ultimately making it more efficient. Bilingualism can keep this center strong even as you age. In a study of 24 million dementia patients worldwide, many of whom also had Alzheimer's, researchers found that the patients who spoke more than one language had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years after their monolingual counterparts.
5. To make smarter decisions. A study completed last year showed that people thinking in a foreign language were more likely to consider a question more slowly and analytically than in their native language. It seems that thinking in your native tongue is often associated with breezy, emotional decision-making that reveals natural biases. But when considering the same problem in a non-native tongue, subjects in the study demonstrated "enhanced deliberation" based more on cold hard logic. So the next time you have to make a big decision, you might get a better outcome if you consider it in a language other than your own.
As a language learner, you'll not only become a more conscious thinker and listener who can communicate clearly and think creatively, but you'll also gain the most significant benefit of multilingualism: a broader, more global perspective. Each of the five benefits outlined above show that learning another language really does reshape the way we think, helping us better empathize and communicate with customers, partners, and employees by adopting, through language, a new way to see the world.