The lesser-known benefits of learning a second language

To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2020). The lesser-known benefits of learning a second language, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

There are so many reasons to learn a foreign language, not least for the communicative potential and employability that language skills can offer. Nonetheless, foreign language learning has been on a steady decline in British education in recent years. With the world more interconnected than ever before, there has arguably never been a better time to learn a foreign language. This short article aims to summarise some of the lesser-known benefits of language learning, highlighting just how much there is to be gained from learning a foreign language.

Cognitive benefits

Amongst the many reasons one can give for learning a foreign language, the cognitive benefits are perhaps the least often discussed. Stewart (2005) posits,

Beyond the obvious benefits of being able to communicate with speakers of another language and developing an understanding of other cultures and cultural perspectives, studies have shown three additional benefits of learning a foreign language: increased cognitive skills, higher achievement in other academic areas, and higher standardized test scores.

Stewart (2005: p.13)

Indeed, there exists an abundance of literature on childhood bilingualism’s relation to different cognitive abilities, including metalinguistic awareness (Benzeev, 1977; Cummins, 1976; lanco-Worrall, 1972), cognitive flexibility (Peal & Lambert, 1962), divergent thinking and creativity (Landry, 1974; Torrance, Wu, Gowan, & Allioti, 1970).

Cumming-Potvin et al.’s (2003) investigation, based on Vygotsky’s (1978; 1986) socio-cultural theory of cognition, found that Year 4 students learning a foreign language were able to construct, appropriate and apply knowledge from one language to another. Hakuta (1987) found positive correlations between bilingualism and non-verbal measures of cognitive ability in children, which suggests the positive effects of language learning on cognitive ability are not themselves limited to a child’s linguistic ability.

Interestingly, the cognitive benefits of language learning are not limited to childhood. Assuming one reaches proficiency in their second language and continues to use it throughout later life, Bialystok et al. (2004) found that their ‘bilingual advantage’ in cognitive ability remains consistent between the ages of 30 and 60. After this age, studies have found a decrease in response times for monolinguals and bilinguals alike, although the decline is significantly slower for bilinguals (ibid.).

The implications of these findings go beyond how quickly a person can respond to a stimulus; bilinguals have shown slower cognitive aging and a later onset of dementia (Bialystok et al., 2007) by an average of 4-5 years (Alladi et al., 2013). One can find many different explanations for some of the cognitive advantages of bilinguals over their monolingual counterparts. One such explanation is that “early objectification of language results from the use of two languages, leading to the superior use of verbal mediation to guide cognitive activity” (Hakuta, 1987: 1372).

Another explanation is that cognitive differences between bilinguals and monolinguals is due to greater cognitive flexibility, itself caused by bilinguals’ need to select ‘appropriate language options’ from a common conceptual store containing countless mappings of words and concepts (Kroll and De Groot, 1997). According to Green (1998), bilinguals’ advantage is in their inhibitory control, since they have to inhibit the language they are not using to prevent ongoing interference. Whatever the neurological basis may be, there is clearly ample evidence to suggest people may choose to learn another language for the cognitive benefits, if they are aware of these.

Effect on general achievement and progress in other subjects

There are often concerns about students of lower ability learning a foreign language. In many schools, it is common practice to remove some such students from MFL classrooms to give them extra literacy or numeracy support. However, research into the effect of introducing a foreign language into the school curriculum has demonstrated that it neither inhibits general achievement in other subjects, nor effects progress made by students in their native language (Johnson et al., 1961 & 1963; Smith, 1967; Potts, 1967 & Donoghue, 1965 & 1969, cited in Landry, 1974).

According to Landry (1974), learning a foreign language in school promotes students’ creativity, adaptability and willingness to change and develops their “divergent thinking abilities, such as fluency, flexibility, and originality” (ibid: p. 13). Similarly, Stewart (2005) argues that bilingual children’s subsequent “expanded cognitive abilities, creative thinking and problem solving skills, and adaptability are transferable to other academic areas” (p. 14). She reports that “a positive correlation has been found between foreign language study and higher grades in subjects such as English, math, science, and social studies” (Marcos, 2001b; Weatherford, 1986, cited in Stewart, 2005: 15).

In accordance with this finding, Roberts (2002, cited in Stewart, 2005) argues that MFL students develop “an understanding of geographical and cultural perspectives that enhances learning in other classes such as social studies, science, art and music” (p. 14). Finally, a study conducted by Turnbull et al. (2003) of immersion students in Ontario, Canada, found that “French immersion does not have a negative effect on students’ reading, writing, and mathematics skills in English” (p. 21). Though they found a slight lag in English literacy skills at Grade 3 (UK Year 3), they found that by Grade 6 (UK Year 6) “immersion students’ literacy test scores were notably better than their peers’ in English programs” (Turnbull et al., 2003: 32). Furthermore, “at both Grade 3 and 6, the immersion students’ mathematics test scores were almost identical to those of their peers in the English program, even though mathematics had been taught in French in most cases from Grades 1 to 3” (ibid.). These findings further support the argument that students have little to lose and a great deal to gain in other subjects as a result of learning another language, alongside the direct benefits of choosing a language.

Whilst the cognitive advantages may be greatest when language learning starts early, this by no means validates the myth that it is significantly harder for adults to learn another language. According to Piehl (2011), with sufficient motivation and effort, adults can be very successful second language learners. Amongst her participants, she found that home stay programs, peer-to-peer interactions, classroom instruction and cultural involvement were all positive indicators of success for adult learners. For this reason, one must also consider alternative arguments about when to start learning. One may argue it is not of paramount importance that children choose to study a foreign language at school, if their interests and enjoyment guide them towards other subjects; ultimately, if they choose to learn a foreign language later in life they may have great success, particularly as they would be choosing to do so and would therefore be more motivated.

Language learning as a travel skill

This shift in perception of language-learning from academia to language as a communicative, practical skill arguably began in the 1970s, as language-learning moved beyond the confines of grammar schools and entered comprehensive schools, becoming more widely accessible (Boyd, 2001; Dobson, 2018). In recent decades foreign travel has also become increasingly affordable and subsequently incredibly popular for UK residents, leading to the practical importance of some foreign language proficiency for holidays arguably becoming a greater motivator for language learning. As Weatherford (1986) states in his article on the personal benefits of language learning,

The traveler who knows the language of the country not only has an easier time solving everyday problems associated with travel, but also has a more pleasant experience and greater understanding both of the people of the foreign country and of their culture.

Weatherford (1986: p.3)

These advantages of speaking a foreign language are arguably more pertinent now than ever before. In 2018, “more Britons travelled abroad […] than any other nationality, according to official data from the international trade body for aviation” (Adams, 2019). According to outbound tourism statistics for the UK, Spain was the most visited country by British tourists in 2018, with 15.62 million visitors, followed by France and Italy (Johnson, 2019). These statistics demonstrate that now, more than ever, holidays may be a motivator for Britons to learn a foreign language.

Language learning as liberation

Regarding the innumerable contemporary rationales for foreign language learning, Lawes (2004) argues that they can often be categorised into either vocational or academic arguments. Whilst arguments based on employment possibilities or language as a useful ‘skill’ fall into the vocational category, arguments that promote language learning as a valuable experience in itself are broadly academic and, Lawes suggests, risk being branded ‘elitist’. Whilst Lawes (ibid.) posits that many of the arguments from both categories appear to have little effect on students’ motivation, she suggests there are many personal and broader educational benefits to language learning that could be more useful to draw upon. For example, she argues foreign language learning has the potential to boosting students’ self-esteem and develop their self-confidence, as well as broadening their horizons. Lawes (ibid.) also writes the following:

Learning a modern foreign language offers the possibility of breaking down barriers between people. It is liberating in that it emphasises common humanity in a world more disposed to emphasising difference. It offers the possibility of awakening an interest in other cultures and societies, into other ways of thinking and seeing and of encouraging positive attitudes towards people from other countries. It is enriching to learn other languages and delve into other cultures, but it is enriching not because languages and other cultures are unique, but because making contact across barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and become more universal in our outlook.

Lawes (2004: p.48)

The above quote mentions liberation in much the same way as the Department for Education’s (2013) National Curriculum describes foreign language learning as “a liberation from insularity and […] an opening to other cultures” (p. 1).

The findings of all of the research discussed here demonstrate that children have much more to gain from learning a language than simply a qualification. Of course, the qualification is itself a good reason to study a language, as it may lead to opportunities in work and further education and can be the key to achieving the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and entering a top university. Indeed, research shows that students with Erasmus+ experience abroad have an unemployment rate 23% lower than other graduates (European Commission, 2014). However, foreign language skills also add value to holidays and enrich travel experiences. They have been demonstrated to improve cognitive ability and performance in other subjects, as well as delaying age-related dementia. Perhaps most importantly, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, learning a foreign language can liberate children from the insularity and cultural monotony experienced in many regions of the UK. It can broaden their horizons and their outlook past the confines of their town or city to the far reaches of the globe. It can encourage children to see themselves as world citizens, to consider how people live in other countries and other cultures, and to become more tolerant, open-minded and respectful individuals. Gaining knowledge and understanding about other cultures and other languages can also give children greater perspective on their own language and culture, allowing them to engage with the world in a more thoughtful and curious way.

James Sturt-Schmidt - Millennianaire


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