Foreign language learning leads to cognitive benefits in students, experts say
Twelve students of varying backgrounds sit down for dinner at two long tables in the kitchen of a Foreign Language Student Residence apartment north-east of the BYU campus.
Some are STEM majors; others study humanities. A few have family in Utah; others come from overseas. If you listen closely, however, you’ll notice something out of the ordinary which they all share. One thing has brought them together tonight — a common love for a foreign language; not one of them is speaking English.
BYU ranks third-highest in the nation for producing the most graduates with foreign language degrees, with 62 languages regularly taught and nearly 65% of students speaking a second language. There are also 128 languages spoken on campus. The school holds language fairs, supports language clubs, provides opportunities for students to live in immersive language-learning housing and funds free foreign film showings.
Foreign language learning has a greater impact on student growth than is initially evident. In fact, studying a second language leads to benefits related to students’ native language understanding, global and cultural empathy and cognitive abilities, students and experts have realized.
Foreign language study increases native language skills
Allison Duffin, a senior who lives in the French House at the Foreign Language Student Residence, works as a writing consultant in the BYU Research and Writing Center. Although she tutors English writing, she said studying a second language has proven beneficial in helping her do her job.
“Once you start studying a second language, you become much more aware of all the rules and regulations because you have to actively work to use them correctly instead of using them instinctively like you do in your native language,” Duffin said. “I don’t have to think about verb tense in English very much, for example, but because I had to learn all the French tenses and when to use them, I can identify between perfect and progressive tenses, etc. in English.”
Learning French and Russian has better equipped her to help non-native English speakers with their writing, she said. What she’s learned from her language studies affects how she approaches consultations with students.
“It helps me find the vocabulary to point out why something is incorrect rather than just saying ‘That sounds wrong, putting it like this will sound better,’” Duffin said. “Articles are another good example. In English, we sometimes use articles and sometimes don’t, but I never consciously noticed the rules that govern when we do and don’t until I started studying French, which always uses articles, and Russian, which has no articles at all.”
Now, she has even greater admiration for international students who choose to attend school in their non-native language, she said. “I can’t even imagine how stressed and inadequate I would feel trying to attend a university in France.”
Experiencing trying to speak and write in a foreign language has helped her put herself in these students’ shoes.
“I’m more aware of how whack English is and how crucial it is that I can explain things clearly,” she said.
Lillian Jensen, a sophomore who has been learning Arabic since 2017, also said learning different languages has had “a huge impact” on how she understands her first language, English.
“Especially learning bits and pieces of those Indo-European languages,” she said, “I learned a lot about relationships between languages, which helps me understand my own language.”
Language learning increases empathy
Jensen, who has also studied Czech, Bulgarian and German, said her Arabic studies have led to friendships with others.
“Learning foreign languages is super important to me because speaking someone’s language helps you connect with them in a way that you can’t if you aren’t speaking their language to them,” she said. “Language also gives a special insight into the culture of the people who speak it, and I think that can be really valuable as well.”
David Morrell, a sophomore who has studied German, Turkish and Persian, said languages have changed his perspective on the world. He, too, values languages because of their ability to build connections.
“Knowing more languages has certainly made it easier to connect with people, and I feel I am more confident in saying I know the world a bit better,” he said. “(Languages) have taught me to view things in ways not restricted by my existing world views.”
Language learning impacts students academically
Learning a foreign language leads to additional positive cognitive benefits.
According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, there is correlation between language learning and intelligence, memory skills, problem-solving ability and more. Studies also show that learning a second language is related to students’ higher standardized test scores and reading ability.
Morrell noticed that language study helped him cultivate good academic habits.
“It has definitely made my study habits better because I have gained experience memorizing things and am more able to view new concepts abstractly,” Morrell said.
Jensen agreed. “Studying foreign languages has definitely continually changed my study habits,” she said. “I have learned a lot of really effective ways to study from my language classes.”
Not only does a foreign language improve study habits, but it also gives students the benefit of added confidence.
“If I hadn’t decided to learn a second language, I would feel less confident in situations where I am learning something,” Morrell said. “It has helped me to just jump into situations where I might fail but give it a try anyway.”
By Harriet Norcross – May 6, 2020