June 13, 2017

The Bilingual Brain: Benefits and Befuddlement

Photo: wikimedia

By Crabby McSlacker

My latest folly: I'm trying to learn a new language. Spanish! Which among other uses, might come in handy for a pair of snowbirds always on the lookout for warmer climates to flee to during winters.

But I did not study Spanish in school, or in any other setting ever. I'm starting from absolute scratch. And yeah, I did spend many years in California, where Spanish is widely spoken. But my brain was completely impervious! None of it ever registered. Even the annoying ad campaign for Taco Bell didn't manage to teach me the meaning of "Yo Quiero Taco Bell." How could "Yo" mean "I" anyway? It should mean you for heaven's sake.

So I'm only a couple of months into it, and I'm well aware that the whole "maybe I could learn Spanish" thing is, in many ways, a stupid idea. It could so easily turn into just another temporary diversion I've taken up and then later abandoned when something else new and shiny comes along.

Plus: I'm 57. I'm already starting to struggle to find words in my first language. Every new Spanish word I try to memorize is just a brand new chance for my brain to say WTF? Where the hell do you think I'm going to put this?

And yet...

I'm kinda getting a kick out of it and it may even be good for my brain!

Research: Bilingualism Benefits Cognitive Functioning in a Bazillion Ways, and May Even Delay Dementia in Old People!

I won't go through it study by study, but by going through the hell of learning a new language, you apparently reshape your brain and gain all kinds of bad-ass benefits in attention, intellectual functioning, sensory processing, memory, creativity, empathy, and many other things I'm probably forgetting. (Because I haven't gotten bilingual yet.)

But don't you have to learn a second language when you're young?

No! Research says even when you learn a second language in adulthood, it confers all kinds of benefits and may stave off cognitive decline.

Here are a few random links:

From the NIH: Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

Research on Language Learning Benefits (mostly kid focused but whatever)

Learning Second Language Slows Brain Aging (via The BBC who hopefully will forgive the Americanization of "Ageing" but it just looked too weird).

And a blog post summarizing some research on language learning cognitive benefits.

What Sucks About Learning a New Language

It's really really hard. Or at least for me it is.

Sure, the fantasy of quick learning with minimal effort is quite compelling.  Because according to a dude named Andrew, citing a Spanish word frequency study, apparently it's possible to understand almost 90% of spoken Spanish if you know just 1,000 words. And by 3,000 you're up to almost 95%.

"Gosh, " you might think. "So if I just learn 10 new words a day, in a year I'll know over three thousand of words and be well on my way to total fluency!"

Yeah right.

Problem is, learning language is a lot more than memorizing vocabulary words. I mean, duh, right? I knew this in theory. But it's fascinating to see how totally scrambled my brain can get trying to cope with new sounds, new word order, and in essence, a new way of seeing and categorizing the world.

For example, in Spanish, there is more than one form of the verb "to be" depending on whether something is considered a temporary or permanent state. Which is annoying enough, but then for some reason the time of day is considered permanent, while the location of the grocery store is not. Go figure.

And it seems there are a huge crapload of verb tenses and moods in Spanish, most of them yet on the horizon for me at this point, but speaking of "tense" and "moody..."


It can feel pretty darn overwhelming, especially since many of the most common verbs are irregular and require you to just suck it up and memorize them.

Which leads to another language-learning problem: flexible thinking is required. Apparently people who more rigid and want everything to be orderly and consistent tend to be early quitters when it comes to mastering a new language. So many of the "rules" you learn turn out to be riddled with arbitrary exceptions.

Me? I'm not such a flexible thinker.  I'm working on that. Plus? You can't be a perfectionist and learn a new language. Or, well, you can be, but you'll be miserable. Because you will say things wrong much more often than you say them right for a really long time. I'm trying to get used to feeling continually clueless.

But all that said...

What's Pretty Awesome About Attempting to Learn a New Language As An Old Fart

I'm not taking an official class or seeking credit of any sort, so I have no deadlines to worry about.  I can learn on my own schedule and let my own curiosity direct my attention and efforts.

And holy guacamole, I'm SO much more curious about everything than I was as a kid in school! (I attempted to learn French but never got very far).

I have a much more energetic curiosity about how the grammar rules work, what the words mean, and what strange lingual contortions you need to master to make the right sounds come out.  I really, really, really want to know!

But it's more than that: I'm also finding myself fascinated by the learning process itself. Discovering what engages me or doesn't, what frustrates or calms me, thinking about how my brain is changing (or not), pondering philosophical questions about languages and world view and seeing signs of progress, however minimal... it's all incredibly diverting.

Another great thing? There are so many more resources out there for language learning than when I was a kid, many of them completely FREE.  Hooray for public libraries and the interwebs!

My goal is to learn enough grammar and vocabulary to be able to start watching Spanish TV, to listen to music, to read books and websites and comic books whatever I can find that's entertaining.

image via x-ray delta one

And eventually I aim to start speaking and interacting with actual humans. There are a bunch of language-exchange websites that allow you to skype with native speakers: you help them with English, they help you with language you want to learn.

Why not just jump right in now and really challenge myself? Eh, no. I don't learn well by being totally confused. I'm not ready for uncurated language immersion yet, and I ain't stressing about it.

In the meantime, I'm taking it slowly but consistently, spending probably an average of 30-60 minutes a day, most but not all days of the week. For now I've settled on the Pimsleur series, courtesy of my local public library (otherwise it's pricey), plus I recently discovered the entertaining videos of Catalina Moreno Escobar. She speaks slowly and clearly enough that I can usually understand her, plus she's totally adorable. Below is a cute sales pitch for her app or whatever, but she has tons of videos on her Practiquemos Youtube channel for free.

And I also google a lot of grammar and vocabulary questions, because the Pimsleur folks are really shitty about telling you what the rules are, and they work with a fairly small number of vocabulary words. (Though they excel at getting you in the habit of blurting things out constantly and not just passively reading and listening. The trick for me is going off for walks in secluded enough locations that I can blurt unselfconsciously).

Anyway, so far, it's all keeping me pretty entertained, and who knows? Maybe I'm doing a good thing for my aging brain.

Are any of you bilingual? Or attempting to learn a new language?


  1. I wouldn't call my levels of Spanish and French bilingual, since I almost never talk, but I started Spanish in second grade, and continued through college, and still retain some reading ability. I took "Intensive" French one summer--eight weeks of forty hours a week of class--at the beginning of which I could say a few phrases (my father taught French among other things before I was born) and at the end I could read MoliƩre without a dictionary. I've lost a lot over the years.
    I have tried to learn modern Hebrew, and American Sign Language, and never got far with them, from lack of time. I love languages, and would like to collect more of them.
    Have fun!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. Holy cow, Mary Anne, can't believe you learned that much French in just 8 weeks!!! That intensive must have indeed been intense! I'm embarking at a much more leisurely pace. Hope you get to do more collecting!

  3. Hey :) I'm one of those people who revels in other languages and am always delighted to hear about people diving (or maybe tentatively dipping a toe...) into a new one.

    How you learn (visually, aurally, etc) is a big thing, but can I recommend a few things? Post-its, TV/radio/podcast shows with casual usage alongside English, and the Duolingo app (I'm not their shill, I promise).

    Post-its: stick these all over your home with relevant vocabulary so you can have random little reminders every so often (yes, significant others may not be as accepting, but when even they start picking up the word for "door", "microwave" and "linoleum", you know it's working).

    Casual usage: I find tv shows like Jane the Virgin/One Day at a Time and podcasts like LatinoUSA great as they liberally sprinkle conversational Spanish into English dialogue. I don't use them as part of my "learning time", but as something I trick myself into using as a casual vocab tool in my downtime.

    Duolingo: It's a free language-learning app that is good for flashcard-style revision. You can use it for reading, listening and (a little less reliably) speaking revision. Did I mention it's free? Which means you can delete it without buyer's remorse if it just doesn't work out.

    Alongside this, the Google Translate app is awesome for on-the-go queries (and you can download entire languages to use offline if you don't have a big data package on your mobile).

    Have a great time learning Spanish - new languages can be so hugely rewarding!

    Emma x

  4. Muchas gracias Emma, some great ideas!

    For some reason I couldn't get into DuoLingo, but may give it another try in the future. So many cool resources out there! And I hadn't thought about tv shows that aren't entirely in Spanish (which I'm not ready for yet) but which have some sprinkled in. Love when the content is so entertaining that the learning aspect is just a bonus!

  5. I took five years of Spanish in school and it didn't help an awful lot last week when my Netflix account was hacked and switched to Spanish. But I will say that in learning Spanish, my understanding of English improved (I was a good student who blew off a lot of learning long ago, so I always had to stop and think about verbs and adverbs in English until my Spanish classes helped me to catch on - weird? Maybe, but learning is learning). I think it's great that you're learning Spanish - even a little will help you navigate through our multi lingual world...except for Netflix. ;)

    1. OMG, a netflix hack in spanish? That sounds like a huge pain, hope your Spanish helped you at least a little in setting it straight Shelley!

    2. It occurs to me that when renting or streaming movies, you have the option of selecting the language on the soundtrack, closed-captioning, or both. Could be a good way to get more exposure to the new language, maybe especially if it's a movie you already know?

    3. Yes, yes it would. Either watch the movie in English with Spanish subtitles, or in Spanish with English subtitles. I do that a lot.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  6. Yes, i am trying to learn Spanish, also. Have been, off and on, for years. Maybe it is doing my brain some good, i don't know.

    1. That's great that you keep at it Messymimi! And if the research is right, it's like a trip to the Mental Gym. (Um, but I don't mean mental THAT way.)

  7. Being Canadian, I have 9 years of French Canadian that I learned in school. I was not a very good student. My job has me working with people that are Spanish speakers all the time so my company offers lessons once a week. I find I mix up French and Spanish a lot. They say that about the point you are about to give up is when something clicks and the correct sentence in Spanish pops out of your mouth and you have no idea how you did it. At that point is starts happening more often.
    Quick note it is a "bottella de Coke" not "bota de Coke". I learned that!

    1. Cindy I have the same problem with my ancient French messing up attempts to learn Spanish. They're similar in some ways which should help right? Yet it seems to produce more interference than assistance. At least Spanish doesn't have all those letters in there that you don't pronounce. I hated that about French!

  8. I will never experience what it's like to have a bilingual brain because all I can do is speak ENGLISH and um, I am too stubborn to speak more than that. My husband said he wants us to learn GERMAN... And that would be cool but I just know that it wouldn't stick. HA! Well, shit. With that attitude it certainly won't!

    1. I'm with you on the German Gigi. We have a German friend and a German In-Law and as much as I like 'em both: no way in hell. One new language is enough!

  9. I am betting this is great for the aging brain based on past studies! I hate learning new languages.. I was bad at it in school.. plus does not look like I am going to be traveling to fun places any time soon. :)

    1. Well shoot Jody, hope your Ship Comes In (an expression my mom always used to use) and when it does, that it takes you somewhere far away and fun and exotic!

  10. I had two years of Spanish in college. I've never been good at learning other languages, BUT I do try. The best way to learn another language is immersion. When I was in Uruguay, I was so pleased as to how people there tried to help me when I spoke Spanish rather than grade me, lol Adios mi amiga!

  11. I can speak Dutch and learned as a child. Lots of Canadian French, which helped me survive in France. But I would like to learn Spanish. I tried DuoLingo, but it kept taking me back where I had been and wouldn't let me move forward. Hasta luego annoying app!!!

  12. I just suggested to the child we go to guatemala next summer and do a month of immersion. and yep. after I said it I thought CRAP COULD I EVEN LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE IN A MONTH? IT IS NOT NOT NOT MY SKILL SET.

  13. Despacito, the song by Luis Fonsi that Justin Bieber does not know the words to:
    (and a fan threw a water bottle when he would not sing it and almost hit him)


    but you can learn them and dance along!

  14. I get frustrated working with foreign freelancers and have had lists of curse words in different languages, makes me feel better repeating them 25 times.

  15. Transparent languages has this great resource where a word a day
    comes into your email box. This is the link for Spanish

    It gives the meaning, its use in a sentence and you can hear it pronounced.

    I have been getting French for a while now, although without any other study I am not getting anywhere, but their word of the day is a ray of sunshine, and when I have the time or need to get serious about learning a language I would try them first. They charge monthly.

  16. I stumbled onto your blog through a 2013 post about using vinegar to fight carbs, and I was so in love with your tone (your words are my internal monologue) that I needed to know if your blog was still in use. I too have recently decided to learn Spanish, and you have summed up my thoughts exactly!! I've decided to use a couple apps/websites as teachers; have you looked at Memrise or Duolingo?


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