10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Language Learning

10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Language Learning
28 March 2017

After six years of studying Russian, I thought I knew pretty much everything about learning a foreign language. Sat my exams? Check. Read foreign literature? Check. Move to Russia? Check! However, I wanted to find out more about how we actually learn languages and how they affect us socially and even biologically. Read on to find out ten things you (probably) didn’t know about language learning!

1) It makes your brain stronger

Learning a language is like a gym session for your brain! The part of your brain that controls decision making, problem solving and planning is strengthened by language learning. Switching between two different languages builds up this important area.

2) It starts earlier than you think

Researchers believe that children naturally pick up any language they are exposed to until they’re about five years old. Any language learnt in a child’s first five years is actually stored in a different part of the brain than one picked up later. Recent studies have shown that people who have ‘forgotten’ their birth language remember it remarkably quickly when reintroduced to it.

Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’

3) You can make it up!

Up to two million people speak the ‘made-up’ language Esperanto. A mixture of Romantic, Germanic and Slavic languages, its higher regular structure makes it easy to learn. Blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and Avatar feature fictional languages, and the characters of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ speak Nadsat, a combination of Cockney rhyming slang and Russian. Horrorshow!


4) It improves your health

Evidence suggests that bilingualism boosts your memory and creative skills. Scientists also believe that speaking two or more languages can delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia by 4 to 5 years.

5) No one knows how it came about

How exactly did we develop the skill of language learning? There have been plenty of theories, ranging from a belief that humans are ‘hardwired’ for speech to the suggestion that words are based on function or sound. Some scientists even believe that early humans developed language skills by listening to the animals around them.

 6) It can easily die out

Research suggests that a language dies every 14 days and for many minority languages, there are only a handful of native speakers left. Globalisation fuels the desire for a universal language, and fluency in this is crucial in accessing more opportunities. To end on a less depressing note, here’s a story to show things can be turned around. The Mexican dialect Ayapaneco was in danger of dying out when the last two speakers refused to talk to each other following a feud. However, they’ve since made up and have now opened a school which teaches the language!

Examples of sign language

7) It’s a broad term

We normally think of languages as a written or spoken form of communication. However, a huge number of them don’t have these features! Lots of minority languages don’t have a written form, and sign language is purely comprised of gestures. The Khoisan dialects of Africa contain clicking sounds and Silbero Gomero is a whistled Spanish dialect.

8) It changes your brain structure

There’s a reason why your head hurts after a difficult grammar class! The way in which parts of your brain communicate with one another changes when you’re studying a foreign language. Your synapses and neurons get denser and this leads to more activity in other parts of your brain.

Vladimir Nabokov: ‘No single word in English renders all the shades of toska’

9) It’s difficult to translate anything correctly

Anyone who’s used Google Translate will be familiar with this one! Researchers now believe that it’s almost impossible to translate something completely accurately. Some words have different cultural meanings or are a different concept all together. Some just simply don’t exist in other languages. For example, the famous Russian toska (тоска) can only be roughly translated to sadness or melancholia.

10) There’s no limit!

Everyone’s heard of polyglots, but what about hyperglots? These extraordinary people can speak ten or more languages, and there are instances of people fluently speaking 30 or even 50 languages. Hyperglots maintain that you can learn as many languages as you like, providing you give time and practice to each.

So, next time complicated grammar and tricky pronunciation gets you down, just remember these incredible facts about languages and the good that bilingualism does for the world around us. Don’t forget to check the Liden and Denz blog for more posts on the wonders of language!

This post was brought to you by Tilly Hicklin, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, St. Petersburg.

Posted by Tilly Hicklin

My name is Tilly, and I am an intern and Russian language student at Liden & Denz in St. Petersburg. I am on my year abroad from the University of Bristol, where I study in England. My main interests are art, literature and history and I also love to travel. I look forward to telling you all about my time in St. Petersburg!

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