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Learning Languages = Brain Work Out

Being a good teacher isn’t always about helping students understand what they are learning. Sometimes it’s about helping them understand WHY they should learn. Student motivation can be a powerful ally for a teacher in making your work easier, while driving your students towards a brighter future.

It could be said that bilingualism is a form of brain training - a mental ‘work out’ that fine-tunes the mind, making it healthier and more efficient. A report by Karin Zeitvogel for Agence France-Presse said, “Speaking more than one language protects the brain against cognitive decline and makes a person better at multi-tasking”.

“Being bilingual, or even learning a second language late in life, has been shown to slow the decline of some key brain functions”, said Ellen Bialystok of York University, Toronto Canada. Bialystok goes on to say that, “As the human body begins its natural decline in old age, bilinguals seem to maintain better cognitive function. For instance, multilingual stroke victims rarely lose ability in all of their languages because these languages are stored in different parts of the brain.”

Studying a foreign language is a lot like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you, even if you don’t like it (or won’t use it). Also like the vegetables, the earlier you start, the more beneficial it is. This might be an appropriate analogy to use to motivate your students. Speech and language pathologist Robert Kurtz says learning multiple languages helps with making stronger, as well as novel, connections in the brain for better creativity, better classification skills, better logical reasoning, and it makes you a better communicator and story-teller. Basically, learning languages can make you a more interesting person.

Other studies suggest that people with full proficiency in more than one language (bilinguals) outperform similar monolingual people on both verbal and nonverbal (math, critical thinking) tests of intelligence. Multilingual children of average intelligence learned to read in their native language earlier than their monolingual peers. It is also being demonstrated that children being introduced to multiple languages from infancy do not become confused by hearing multiple languages, but learn to distinguish the different tones, patterns, and rhythms of different languages. This can lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of music as well as ‘perceptual attentiveness’ which is the ability to switch between tasks and remain focused.

So, how might you communicate these benefits to unmotivated students? Perhaps appeal to the things you know they already value or enjoy. Such as music, their career prospects, or their grades and test results. Perhaps you could spend an entire lesson giving a presentation to them about the mental benefits of studying English, how learning multiple languages can improve their quality of life. It can then move on to a discussion and mini debate lesson.

Remember, that all this doesn’t apply to students only. You can take advantage of the benefits too if your Japanese isn’t at the level it should be. If you are already fluent however, there’s the bonus of learning a third or fourth language as well. So get out there, and give your brain a work out!

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