Why bother learning a language?

Life in Spain Mon, 19 Jan 2015
Learning a language

It is hard learning a language, especially if you are slightly older in years and you’re starting from scratch. You can think because you live in another country or visit it regularly that it will somehow come to you naturally. That you will absorb it just by being there.

But it doesn’t happen like that. Unless you are in the fortunate position of growing up bilingual, learning a language has to be worked at, and it’s hard. To begin with you need to have some basic understanding of grammar in your own language. Then you have to learn how that applies to the new language you are studying. Finally, there’s speaking and listening, which tends to be a completely different ball game. You might read a language perfectly and understand what it means but wait until you have to make sense of a Spanish native talking ten to the dozen.

So, with these hurdles, why bother? If you have chosen to buy a property or live in an area which is largely populated by your own nationality you might seriously wonder what the point is. However, if you want to make the most of your time in Spain then being able to communicate, at least at a basic level, is a very important part of it.

Along with language comes culture. If you are able to speak and understand some Spanish then you are more likely to participate with the Spanish in their cultural events. It won’t be just expat functions that you attend or circles you mix in.  This flexibility enhances your experience of Spain and makes you feel more a part of the country you have chosen to invest your time and money in.

But help might be on its way. Technology is improving constantly and as translate apps get better and better perhaps the need to actually speak another language is gradually dissipating.

Translations, care of Skype

You’re probably already used to Google Translate if you are not fluent in Spanish. This handy little tool will give you a reasonable translation whatever languages you are juggling. The fact that it also comes up with some absurd phrases is a handicap you can get over with a little bit of logic and a basic understanding.

However, the technology looks in place to take this even further. Skype is developing a tool that is aimed at interpreting spoken language in real time over its video-conferencing interface. You speak, it is translated and then the other person answers.

However, even when the system gets the translation right it is unlikely to replace the need for language learning. To begin with it is not simultaneous. You could soon get bored and frustrated trying to have a real dialogue with someone using this software. In the end, no matter how sophisticated it is, it will struggle to keep up with changes in spoken language.   

The need to have fluent speakers available doesn’t seem to have been replaced, yet. And even if it was, there might be other reasons for speaking more than one language.

Making your brain better

New research shows that there are powerful reasons for learning a language that aren’t just linked to being able to communicate.  

Research suggests that people who speak two languages in their everyday life for many years experience structural improvements in the brain in comparison to those who don’t. Bilingualism affects the structure of the brain as it increases the volume of grey matter.

The differences are most pronounced in those who have been bilingual for a while and are constantly juggling between the two languages. Researchers suggest that it is the act of using one language whilst suppressing the other that is particularly important.

But what if you learnt your second language at an older age? It seems to be less important how old you are than actively using it. Late bilinguals were also shown to have changes in brain structure as long as they were actively using their second language.  It is immersion which seems to be key.

Being bilingual isn’t an option if you came to Spain in your later years. What is possible is that joining a Spanish language group not only will keep the grey matter active but can also introduce you to new friends and a new culture. 

More information

Now Skype can translate for us, what’s the point in learning a language?

Keeping actively bilingual makes our brains more efficient at relaying information

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