The average summer break for American students is about 70-90 days. According to some linguists, that’s enough time to become fluent in French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, or Swahili. If you spent 10 hours per day studying one of these foreign languages, you could achieve basic fluency in just 48 days. Extra time is required for more difficult languages such as Chinese or Arabic.
Between riding bikes, swimming at the pool, taking a vacation, and catching up with friends, many students won’t want to commit to the 10-hours-per-day strategy for learning a new language (we all have priorities). Even so, the extra time can be used to start learning a new language, which exercises the brain at the same time, preparing a student for the fall, and giving them an intellectual advantage.
Why learn a new language? Why not learn a new dance instead?
Good question. Learning to dance can be very good for the brain too, but there is something special about studying a second language. Learning a new language improves executive function, a part of our cognition that is associated with memory, attention, problem-solving, reasoning, decision making, and more. Sound familiar? That’s right—the same skills that are imperative for learning new information at school are strengthened when you learn a new language.
To put it simply, learning a new language makes a person a better learner.
But that’s not all. Learning a new language has not only been shown to improve cognitive function, but also it can curb cognitive decline, even in people suffering from dementias.
OK, But I don’t want to do homework over summer break.
Fortunately for you, there are many ways to learn a second language without having to sit down at a table for hours, attempting to memorize every possible verb conjugation.
- Travel (or not) - Language and cultural immersion is one of the best ways to learn a second language. It may also be the most obvious, most expensive, and less possible options for many of us. Traveling abroad helps accelerate language learning by being forced to use the second language all day, every day, and in real-life circumstances. You don’t have to travel to a different country, or even a different state for that matter. Meeting neighbors who speak English as a second language can help build vocabulary and improve grammar—quite possibly in a mutually beneficial experience!
- Label it - Beginning to learn a new language can be as simple as writing the word for household items on a sticky note and sticking it on the corresponding item in your home. I tried this strategy with great success when I was beginning to learn French. Each morning I would walk into the kitchen (la cuisine) to make a cup of tea (du thé) and eat toast (la tartine).
- Try a auditory-feedback device - There are several devices on the market that help users stimulate brain growth and improve the overall efficiency of their learning. Although it sounds kind of “sci-fi,” it’s actually a very simple and organic concept. Forbrain® Bone Conduction Headphones provide the user with dynamic feedback of a sound stimulus (typically the user’s own voice) via bone conduction. The combination of stimulation and method of delivery creates an opportunity to use the device in everyday life, making it practical and efficient. How to use it? Simply put it on, then carry on. Language learning becomes a multi-sensory experience that imprints information at a rapid pace due to its positive effects on cognition. Read more about Forbrain here.
- Check out a language learning app - Duolingo, CoffeeBreak Languages, and Babbel are all free applications that can be used on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Practice learning a second language while waiting at the bus stop, taking a coffee break, or standing in line at the grocery store. Practice makes perfect and every little bit counts.
- Talk to a native speaker - Having an internet connection means having the world at your fingertips—including native speakers of your second language. Join second-language learning chats where you can practice learning a language live, with a native speaker, for the simple price of helping them learn English. Language Exchange Apps offer you the opportunity to improve your skills while helping someone else do the same. Topping the list for these types of applications are Tandem, Bilingua, HiNative, and HelloTalk.
A Myriad of Benefits
Learning a new language happens cumulatively over time. But you don’t have to be fluent in a second language to benefit from studying a few words, expressions, or pleasantries. To review, learning a new language can improve:
- Short and long-term memory
- Attention (notably divided attention—the ability to multitask)
- Improves learning ability
- Increases creativity
- Improves cognitive reasoning, logic, and discrimination of concepts
- Improves decision making
And, believe or not, learning a second language can mean a bigger income. It’s clear that making this investment can bring great rewards to enrich our lives as students, and as we age.
If that’s not enough to convince you, consider these statistics. According to the World Economic Forum, only 20% of students in the United States learn a second language as compared with a median of 92% across Europe. Learning a second language as an American can make you stand out of the crowd.
Which language should I learn?
I’m just guessing, but you may already know some English. If that’s the case, congratulations! You know the lingua franca (the common language). English is spoken by over 350 million people worldwide as a first language, and over 430 million people as a second language. So where to next? It really doesn’t matter. All second languages will have the same positive cognitive effects on your brain.
We do know, however, that Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, but for a native English speaker, it’s a very different system of symbols and words to learn, making it a challenge. English is a Germanic language and Germanic languages such as Norweigan and Swedish are said to be easiest to learn due to similar vocabulary and grammatical structure. The Romance language of Spanish is the next easiest language for native English speakers because of all its cognates (similarly sounding words).
Whichever language you chose, make the most of your 70-90 days of summer vacation and practice, practice, practice. Your brain will thank you.