There are currently 7,151 languages spoken worldwide, according to the Linguistic Society of America, and around 40% of those are endangered.
I am a linguist by passion and have learned six of them. I still have 7,145 to go.
Spanish is my native language, and I learned French and Portuguese as a child, English as a teenager, and Italian and Mandarin as an adult.
I also studied German at school and Cantonese in Hong Kong but failed to master them. My SIM card for languages ran out of data.
Due to my dad’s job, every four years, we moved to a different country, and that’s the story of how I became a young polyglot and a language aficionado.
Flexing your brain with languages
Besides the obvious benefits of speaking different languages in a world that is ever more inter-connected, there are some incredible cognitive benefits:
The most obvious benefit of learning a language is its impact on memory and the capacity to retain words and sounds.
Particularly when learning languages that are very different from your mother tongue, you must learn thousands of new lexicons and, in some cases, an entirely new alphabet. Chinese, for instance, has over 100,000 characters, although an educated person knows around 8,000.
Studies have shown that people who are bilingual show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia around 4.5 -5 years later than people who speak just one language.
When you speak different languages, your brain is figuring out different ways to send a message or find different solutions for the same problem.
It’s like finding alternative ways out of a maze made of languages.
Languages are not copy-paste of each other: the way they are designed, the grammar, and the construction of the sentences are very different.
In German, the verb often goes at the end of the sentence, while in Chinese, past, present, and future tense are almost the same.
Speaking a foreign language forces you to develop your problem-solving skills.
3. Active Listening
Being able to listen is an obvious requirement when learning a new language, but this is the next level of active listening on steroids.
Learning a foreign language is like learning to sing opera.
Mastering foreign accents is a task nearly impossible unless you are a native speaker because of how different the tones and sounds are.
Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has 8, and getting the wrong tone can have serious consequences.
I once ordered sugar at a restaurant in Shanghai in Mandarin ( 糖) and was served a soup (汤) instead because I used the wrong tone for “tang.’
4. Open mind
In order to master a foreign language, you must completely open your mind and unlearn your first language.
Most “language virgins” struggle to detach themselves from their mother tongue and instinctively try to translate word by word, which leads to frustration and misunderstandings.
That approach seldom works, and linguistic fluency only happens when your brain totally resets, stops translating, and starts thinking in the second language. That exercise is the best example of opening your mindset and rewiring your brain.
That’s why children are so good at languages. They don’t have preconceived notions about what it should or shouldn’t be. It’s just the way it is, and their little brains suck it all in.
When you speak different languages, you immerse yourself in new realities, as the linguistic universe is multidimensional.
While the word “sea” is feminine in French (la mer), it is masculine in Spanish (el mar) but at times can be feminine too (la mar), and therefore my perspective of the sea changes depending on what language I am thinking in.
If speaking in French, I might think feminine and elegant, however, in Spanish, I think powerful and strong.
When you speak a foreign language, your brain is not only expressing ideas in a different way: it’s thinking differently all together.
You have 7,000 languages to choose from. Which one are you going to pick?