Just last week, a student that I was chatting with made an interesting observation. He had been studying Mandarin alongside his commerce degree and, despite some initial concerns about the workload, achieved impressive grades for all his papers. However for the current trimester when he dropped his language studies, hoping to enhance his commerce grades (he hopes to apply for accountancy internships next year) his grades declined. He had been aware that his concentration, motivation and general thinking skills had reduced noticeably over the trimester and on reflection attributed this to the fact that studying a language had been making him more efficient in learning and processing new information. He will be continuing with his language studies next trimester and is convinced that he will see a return to his previously strong performance.
This student’s experience is not unusual but I was intrigued enough to quickly Google to see what evidence or commentary there might be out there – anecdotal or scientific – that substantiated his experience and my own observations. There’s actually quite a lot. Here are a couple of interesting finds. The first corroborates the student’s experience. The second is a little tangential but is an interesting and slightly weird insight into how the ‘right brain’ works in relation to language acquisition. This contrasts dramatically with the ‘left brain’ learning methods used back when I was at High School being ‘taught’ French and German which involved memorising lists of vocabulary and the rules for conjugating verbs all with a view to being able to read and then translate literature. The evidence seems to be pretty convincing, learn a second language; it doesn’t need to be part of your degree, do it as an interest.
The collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention wilfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind.
A male student learned Spanish in 61 Hours. The student was kept awake during the entire 61-hour period with only 10 minute pauses every hour (no snoozing).He was bombarded with instructions and questions by five Spanish teachers who worked in shifts. After 12 hours, the student had mastered a Spanish vocabulary of 1,000 words. By the 44th hour, the student faded. He was too tired to think. He stopped translating Spanish into English to understand the meaning. For the remaining hours, he talked to the instructors completely in Spanish.