Need a New Hobby? Learning Another Language Is Like Fitness Training for Your Brain

All the cognitive, emotional, and cultural benefits of picking up another language at any stage of life.


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As the world continues to become increasingly interconnected, multilingualism is becoming less of a luxury and more of a norm. Understanding and speaking another language does more than facilitate communication; it can actually change how your brain works and, ultimately, make you a more well-rounded person. It’s not just about being able to say “bonjour” when in France and “buongiorno while in Italy, but rather a chance to exercise long-dormant brain networks, think more creatively, and see the world differently.

The 2022 U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 21.6 percent of people in the U.S. (one in every five people) speak a language other than English at home. This number is behind European countries, where 63 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language. This phenomenon is due to immigration, yes, but also to students learning two or three languages during their primary education. There are no federally mandated foreign language learning requirements for American students, leaving states and schools to fend for themselves. In fact only three states (New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington D.C.) have high-school language requirements. 

“Being monolingual is actually not the norm. People in other parts of the world speak several languages and dialects,” says Cécilia Jourdan, a French language educator and language learning consultant at Hello French and a cofounder of creative agency J&P. In her pool of about a hundred students over ten years in New York City, Jourdan has noted that because English is such an internationally accepted language, people don’t feel a requirement or necessity to learn another language. And yet, learning another language teaches so much more than grammar and vocabulary, or how to ask for directions while traveling abroad.

Learning a New Language Improves Neuroplasticity 

Language skills are a mechanism and training gym for the rest of the brain, affecting cognitive and emotional intelligence. A language class is like a treadmill for the left side of the brain. “If you’re not currently someone who speaks more than one language, by learning a new language you’re going to exercise a part of the brain that’s been dormant since you were around seven or eight years old,” explains Patrick K. Porter, PhD, a neuroscience expert, award-winning author, and creator of BrainTap. “Doing these types of activities actually expands your ability to handle new situations and be creative with your solutions.” 

In activating a stagnant part of the brain, we create momentum for other aspects of brain function that affect critical thinking and creativity. 

“I often compare language learning to a puzzle, a code to crack if you will,” says Sofia Sayers, a linguist, Mandarin Chinese teacher and writer at DAO Insights (she speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese). “You start with a handful of words, and then you begin stringing together bits and pieces until it conveys an image in someone else’s mind. For the brain, the power of constant recall and sentence formulation helps with memory and creativity, and for every word or phrase mastered comes a new connection in the brain. It keeps you on your toes, whether you’re a beginner just starting out or someone who has mastered the language and is pushing to maintain it.”

While the left side of the brain is primarily responsible for language acquisition, the right side of the brain plays a critical role in helping learners identify the basic sounds associated with a language. The process is then like a puzzle, indeed, putting together the different phonic particularities and igniting different parts of the brain to work together. 

According to 2015 research from the Georgetown University Medical Centre, subjects who spoke two languages (bilinguals) had more gray matter in the brain (a very good thing) and better short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and attention management when compared to those who only spoke one language. Not only that, but it can also help promote mental flexibility and creativity, preserve your brain’s white matter (responsible for helping you process information quickly), and help slow down dementia as you age. 

The brain regions and networks involved in learning a language become stronger, adaptable, and quicker to respond, which can help improve other tasks, mental skills, and areas of life unrelated to direct communication or language learning. 

“You can improve all areas of your life by practicing a new language,” Porter says. “[Scientific] papers show physical increases in certain regions of the brain, especially the hippocampus, which has to do with recall and storage of memories. This literal increase in thickness in the area of the brain allows there to be more neuroplasticity or neural pathways for cognitive function.” 

But languages are more than just a tool of verbal communication and brain health; they also shape our world vision and cultural behavior.

Broaden Cultural Awareness and Cultivate Empathy

“Language is the building block of all other knowledge. Without it, we’d have a hard time learning anything else,” says Damon Dominique, a French language educator, content creator, and author of You Are a Global Citizen. In fact, according to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, one’s view of the world is shaped by the language they grew up speaking. In other words, the way we see the world is essentially defined by the language in which we think.

Not only do we learn about another culture when we learn a new language, but we also learn a new world philosophy. For example, distinct language patterns narrate cultural ones. Do languages that use both you and you formal (like tu and usted, in Spanish, or tu and vous in French) have a different understanding of respect than those with only one way of addressing someone? How about other languages that have a third neutral pronoun—do they understand gender differently?

Some languages use the verb to have for desires, hunger, feelings, and more. Other languages, like Italian, speak with urgency and immediacy, often in the present tense, as if life only happened right here and now. Is it their use of language that strongly identifies their world-spread concept of la dolce vita? Some languages have an extensive list of words to say the same thing, as in Spanish or Russian. Does having more or fewer words change the way of thinking for the people speaking these languages? 

“Sometimes people only see learning a language as learning orthography and vocabulary, but you’re learning a culture and opening your mind to this whole thing,” Jourdan says. “This is why I think that the way I teach and what's on my Instagram and TikTok is never just a lesson on definite articles, but rather bringing in the culture and trying to have fun with it.” 

Learning a new language not only trains our brains’ executive functions, but also allows for a higher level of empathy and the ability to connect with those with different linguistic backgrounds from ours. Altogether, one could argue it makes us better humans when we put our worldview aside and try to understand others and their ways of thinking.

How to Learn Another Language: Apps, Classes, and Private Lessons

Fortunately, there are many ways to learn a language today, from online apps to language exchanges, college classes, one-on-one tutoring sessions, group classes, cultural centers, and more. But how do you choose what’s best for you? 

Each specific mode of learning serves a different purpose. For example, some of the most popular apps include Duolingo, Babbel, and Memrise. These are a great way to get your daily dose of language training and keep you accountable and motivated through the gamification format of the platform. While Jourdan argues you will never fully learn a language this way, it might inspire you to find other ways to learn and continue progressing. 

The best option, when total language immersion is unavailable, of course, is a one-on-one class that allows lots of speaking and direct practice with a native speaker. This allows the instructor to connect with your interests and make the class enticing for you. For those who can’t afford one-on-one classes, there are language exchanges when two native speakers teach each other their languages, college classes that are often budget-friendly, and even local community-based programs, or opportunities through cultural institutions.

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