One of the best things you could do for your older self is to work on your mental fitness. Giving yourself the gift of cognitive endurance will serve you long into life. The ability of your brain to function as a muscle: responding to your physical environment, switching between cognitive areas, responding to cognitive demands, and learning from behavioral experiences – is part of what’s known as neuroplasticity.
Your brain forms new neurons as a result of your experiences. The next time you recognize familiar environments or situations, your brain fires faster with its newly formed neurons, now knowing how to react based on experience. This is how you form what translates as wisdom, resilience, and emotional intelligence.
Just like a muscle, when your brain is stretched and challenged, it grows back stronger. One practice that promotes cognitive advantages for all ages is learning a new language. Aside from neurological benefits, this fuels your communication and helps you understand the world from various cultural perspectives. Sometimes processing in terms of words and phrases that don’t even exist in English – creates an entirely new perspective on life.
A Practice for All Ages to Benefit From
For young learners in your family, bilingualism or any number of languages introduced to them will foster cognitive advantages they will use for the rest of their lives. The sooner they gain these skills the better! When your little ones practice more than one language they are able to recognize there is more than one approach and label to life. As a result, their processing is enhanced and becomes more analytical and enlightened.
Switching between areas of the brain when learning a language increases your sharpness in task-switching abilities. In a world with growing distractions of targeted advertising, technological dependency, increasing career changes, or any number of things – being able to stay focused when switching between tasks might be one of the most valued and sought-out skills of our future.
It’s common knowledge that the brain is not actually all that good at multi-tasking. Yet, multiple regions of your brain are activated when you switch between languages, and additionally, it records what environments, contexts, and even sounds are triggered by different languages. This improves what is called your inhibitory control when you are able to ignore things you perceive (see, hear, taste, smell, feel) to focus on relevant input – i.e. the task at hand, the person talking, the topic you’re analyzing.
For your little ones, this translates to better auditory attention and sensory processing. Since children are able to practice pitch perception through language learning, they benefit from increased attention to detail and clearer processing for tasks that don’t involve language.
As an adult you will also benefit, and for the future, your increased neuroplasticity will fight against cognitive decline that for some could eventually become Alzheimer’s or dementia. Alternating your brain networks by practicing a language keeps more regions of your brain active. When one region’s abilities begin to decline in old age, you will have more remaining active regions to tap into, protecting your memory and cognitive control.
In terms of learning a language, get the children in your family started as young as possible, so they can reap the benefits of increased neuroplasticity at their young age.
For adults, learning is a bit more intentional as opposed to little ones who seem to soak it up without even trying. Here are some tips for real comprehension:
Tips for True Language Retention
- Tie meaning to what you practice and truly internalize what you learn
When you try to memorize words on a page or screen without emotion (i.e. you’re bored), nothing will stick with you. At this point it’s easy to forget the information shortly after if you don’t use it. When your learning has meaning is when you really know you’ll be able to use it forever. This happens when you make mistakes, jokes, emotional connections, telling stories, use physical activities, patterns, and relationships to connect with what you’re learning. So, don’t just leave it up to a book. Even an emotional or exciting movie or song can help! Emotion + information = memory.
- Stories with visual and musical stimuli: the golden recipe
It’s not just with language that we learn through stories. Stories are a part of our ancestry and keep things interesting. Music is also catchy and easier to remember. There are lots of studies that show practicing an instrument can increase neuroplasticity as well. Some of us learn by watching, only believe it when we see it, or have photographic type memories – whatever works for you! Images, real or imagined, give life to what you’re learning and make it memorable.
- Learn the culture too — Enrich your worldview and develop a better understanding of communication in the way of the language you’re learning
Language without culture is pretty lifeless. Memorization might get you through a conversation, but you’ll sound like a textbook recording. Maybe not, but one of the benefits of language is seeing the world through a whole new lens. Even more, some things can’t be directly translated, so it pays to understand the meaning and history behind the way people communicate.
For example, different translations of spiritual and religious texts have to account for the message relayed if the text was only directly translated without adjusting to the culture. When discussions about leading a simple life as many spiritual leaders did, English translations might say “they ate only bread,” whereas in some eastern cultures at that time a simple regime would’ve included rice, so each translation reflects these adjustments.
6 Words to Benefit from that We Don’t Have in English
Some messages might not land the same depending on the culture and background receiving them. There is a lot of beauty in learning to interpret culture, communication, and processing in new ways. Here are some words that don’t exist in English but provide a perfect explanation to things we experience in life, in beautifully unique ways. I especially love the ones that describe nature:
1. Shinrin-Yoku 森林浴 – Japanese
Forest bathing, visiting the forest for relaxation.
2. Mångata – Swedish
Light from the moon that when reflected on the water appears like a road.
3. Sisu – Finnish
Persevering, with dignity and courage, through an intense situation that may seem hopeless or crazy.
4. Meraki μεράκι– Greek
Pouring your heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into something and leaving a piece of yourself within it.
5. Treppenwitz – German
When debating with someone and you feel their arguments starting to outweigh yours, but after leaving you to think of the perfect response that you should’ve said to them…
6. Dadirri – Ngan’gi Aboriginal Australian
Contemplating and listening to your deep inner-consciousness to arrive at peace with yourself – giving you a deep understanding of nature’s beauty because of it.
Maybe you’ll find yourself soon thinking and speaking in a mix of the languages you know, with your newly developed brain. Finding words to describe emotions, experiences, and phenomena gives you more agency over your life. Name it to tame it!
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Glorious, P. H. (2021, March 23). 28 Words That Don’t Exist in English — You’ll wish they did! Medium. https://medium.com/swap-language/28-words-that-dont-exist-in-english-you-ll-wish-they-did-e200ef1c3ae2
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Freeman, B. (2021, May 3). Name It to Tame It: Labelling Emotions to Reduce Stress & Anxiety. Oral Health Group. https://www.oralhealthgroup.com/features/name-it-to-tame-it-labelling-emotions-to-reduce-stress-anxiety/
Murdoch, D. (2017, May 5). 10 Words That Perfectly Describes Nature from All Around the World. Nature Connection Guide. https://natureconnectionguide.com/10-words-perfectly-describes-nature/
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Rodrigues, A. C., Loureiro, M. A., & Caramelli, P. (2010). Musical training, neuroplasticity and cognition. Dementia & neuropsychologia, 4(4), 277–286. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1980-57642010DN40400005