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The mental health benefits of learning a language

Illustration of several people each speaking a different language

Tips & tricks by Sarah Chamberlain

Learning a new language isn't just useful for communicating – it can work wonders for our mental health too. Sarah Chamberlain looks at how.

Back in our caveman days, we’d be problem-solving to find shelter and food in tough environments daily. Now, the kind of problem-solving we do is fairly different: organising a birthday party or trying desperately to remember a password, for example.

There is one common denominator between these vastly different periods in human history though: communication.

How we communicate with each other has been shown to excite neural pathways in our brains, helping us to develop cognitive processes like problem-solving, and positively affecting our mental health. And just like flexing our muscles at the gym, learning a new way to communicate exercises the brain to make it stronger cognitively. Brain training, essentially.

Personally, I’m already feeling the benefits of learning a new language, despite only being early on in my journey. So, I thought I would share some of the associated benefits with learning a new language, and inspire you to reap them too.

The endorphin rush: language learning helps fight depression and anxiety symptoms

Limited research on the connection between learning a new language and mental health exists. According to scientists, a lot more research is needed. But anxiety and depression can have detrimental effects on cognition, and studies so far have proven language learning improves brain cognition.

I’ve already noticed a difference in my memory. It surprises me how much I remember, finding the correct Spanish words and rules hiding in corners of my brain that I didn’t realise I even had storage space for.

Perhaps the biggest impact for me though is the positive way it makes me feel every day.

The small incremental wins along the way continue to deliver bursts of endorphins that improve my mood and give me something to be proud of.

Of course, the process has its ups and downs. But when I’m engaged in learning, I can escape the toxicities of social media, negative habits, and self-destructive thoughts. Giving my brain something else to focus on, self-development reminds me of the exciting opportunities outside my bubble and the positive progression I’m capable of, lifting my self-esteem.

And I’m not alone. For example, learning German has helped alleviate the symptoms of depression for this person. They discuss how learning a new language helped them connect with the things they used to care about when depression and anxiety “made her world feel small”, and her options few.

I’ve set myself boundaries, dedicating 15 minutes to one hour a day to the process as a means of relieving my mind from the stresses and anxieties of life. I’ve found it especially helpful as I wind down for bed.

Improve cognitive functioning and reduce the risk of long-term problems like dementia

This isn’t something I’ve experienced yet, but it’s certainly a benefit everyone should be aware of.

Brain cognition is known to be affected in neurodevelopmental disorders like dementia, and new research suggests that language learning positively impacts cognitive functioning. Consequently, people who use their brains more by furthering language skills tend to have lower rates of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory problems later in life.

The best part is that you don’t have to take big leaps in language development to gain substantial mental health benefits. In one study, people who had never studied Spanish before or hadn't studied any language in the previous 10 years experienced cognitive benefits after just a few months of consistent learning. That’s pretty impressive.

“The participants in our study showed significant cognitive improvements without becoming nearly fluent in Spanish, which suggests that you don’t have to be bilingual for your brain to benefit from working with another language,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University.

The benefits were also proven regardless of education levels, gender, or occupation.

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Opening your mind and forming better connections

The British Academy reports that learning a foreign language doesn’t just improve cognition, it engages an extensive neural network that has a positive impact on brain flexibility and creativity.

The study suggests this is due to the cognitive brain exercising involved in the complexities of the language learning process, like willingness and adaptability to change when switching between languages.

It also highlights learners of languages are more empathetic and have a global mindset, which could be down to their interests and openness to other cultures.

So it isn’t just about mechanical learning and linguistics – in a cultural context, it opens you up to explore new discoveries and experiences.

For me, one of my biggest eye-openers was visiting Colombia and learning about a culture where very little English is spoken.

It was a significant part of my journey; understanding different accents, people and how the language changes depending on the area is fascinating.

I’ve also seen growth – building positive connections in ways I never thought I’d be able to. I’ve even had brilliant social conversations with Spanish and Argentinian people to exercise my new skill.

How to maximise the benefits of learning a new language

There are so many options. These are just the tips and tools I’ve found on my language-learning journey to help you:

  • Apps – we spend so much time on our phones, you might as well make it time well spent on self-development. Plus, apps make language learning fun and help you turn it into a habit. I can’t recommend Duolingo enough and many friends have recommended Babbel to me too. And you can meet people in your chosen language through Tandem to practise real conversations.

  • Try in-person 1:1 or group lessons – these are great for building genuine connections with people and gaining valuable direct interactions you won’t get from an app.

  • Listen to language-learning podcasts – there are plenty out there. Some of my favourites are Duolingo and Coffee Break (these are skewed to Spanish, but they do other languages too).

  • Invest in books, movies or magazines – lessons don’t always show you how languages are used in real life. Media exposes you to different sounds and sentence structures to learn more words, accents and ways of communicating to help you remember more. I just invested in this book to get started.

  • Set yourself a realistic goal – my goal is simple: to speak and understand the fundamentals of Spanish, at a foundation level. To be fluent would be pretty good too, but I’m not putting too much pressure on myself by setting unrealistic expectations with limited spare time. Anything above my goal is a huge bonus if it feels right. (Hopefully one day!)

  • Remember: the language learning journey isn’t easy sometimes you hit a wall and feel like you’re making little progress. Or maybe you’ll even feel like you’re going backwards or not getting the hang of it. Don’t throw the towel in.

Stop for the day and pick up where you left off the next day with fresh brain juices. I’ve had a few of these moments of frustration followed by blissful days of amazing progress later.

The rewards of learning a language are endless, and I’m sure this article and current research only scratches the surface. But based on my positive experience, why not give it a go? It’s never too late.


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