Foreign Language: A Resolution Worth Keeping? by Catherine Foster


January: that time of year redolent with fresh beginnings, new starts, a bright future and all of those resolutions. There are a few resolutions that crop up January after January, those great promises that we make ourselves and intend to keep. Sometimes we do … or at least, we try our best to. This post concerns itself with a particular recurrent resolution that many people fizzle out on not long after they begin: learning a foreign language. For those of you who have decided that this is your year to finally conjugate those verbs in earnest: this message is for you! Especially if, as January draws to a close and February starts to dawn, your initial enthusiasm begins to wane a bit, and you’re beginning to think “Eh, what’s the rush? I’ve got a lot on my plate. Maybe some other time. Maybe next year …”

Not so fast! That resolution was a sound one, and you should keep it if you can. Learning a new language is tough, it’s true. It takes time, commitment, and effort. There’s no easy way, and anyone who tells you different is just trying to sell you their method. This post isn’t about how to learn a foreign language, but why you shouldn’t give up on it. In particular, why it has relevance and benefits to you, as a writer.

There are plenty of benefits of learning a foreign language. We have all heard them, and it only takes a second to Google the word “foreign language” before you are bombarded with endless lists detailing why you’ll be all the smarter and better for attempting it. But if you want to know how it will help you as an author, the field narrows. How does it help you write?

People who study foreign language must begin to pay attention to vocabulary, grammar, diction, syntax, conjugation … parts of speech and complexities of their native tongue that they already have through natural language acquisition as an infant and take for granted. In learning it anew, they must think about and educate themselves in the structure of not only the new language but also the native language. In short, they become an expert in their own language through being a student of another.

Language is something we acquire so early in infancy that we often don’t pay attention to it. Nor to the main purpose: communication. In becoming a student of another language, with its strange new sounds, we are forced to pay focused attention to the sounds we make as well as the sounds others make. This allows us to become better listeners, better communicators, and better writers. Writing is merely speaking in slow motion. Everything is related.

There are countless studies on the effects of foreign language on the brain, but one in particular is important to note here: a study of verbal achievement concluded that performance in reading comprehension, language mechanics and language expression was significantly higher in favor of people who study and learn foreign language than unilingual students. This study shows that the bilinguals outperform the unilinguals on a number of cognitive, linguistic, and metalinguistic tasks, even when the differences in intelligence are controlled. This is an important finding for people who are curious about how their language expression in their own language is impacted by bilingualism. The answer is resoundingly clear: it is one of the best organic ways to improve vocabulary, language expression and language mechanics, all critical skills for an author.

If you’re leaning towards learning a language, you don’t need to wait for next January or make a resolution to do so. There’s no better time for anyone, especially an author, to jump in and get started. Your brain will thank you, and so will your flagging manuscript! Try it and see!

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