4 ways language learning can improve mental health
This is something that isn’t really talked about a great deal. Even amongst language learners and polyglots. As avid language learners I suppose we take it for granted! There is a certain joy to learning and improving in a foreign language.
But can it actually help to improve your mental health?
Well it would appear that the simple activity of learning a language over time can lead to improved mental health and wellbeing.
How is this?
We’ll go into the 4 key points that make this happen in the following article so read on if you want to find out more.
First of all, let’s start with a small caveat.
Language learning is hard, very hard at times. Sometimes you’ll be making progress. Other times you’ll find yourself going backwards or even sideways, for months or even years on end. You’ll definitely feel yourself wanting to give up on numerous occasions.
Thing is though. This is the secret to what makes language learning excellent for mental health and wellbeing.
It’s a challenge for the brain.
See, our brains are wired to solve complex problems and issues that arise on a day to day basis. (Think how do I hunt down my next meal or find shelter from the weather in a hostile environment.) These are all hard-wired from when humans lived in caves.
Communication is an aspect of this. If I can’t communicate with my neighbour we might have problems and misunderstandings. This is essentially a threat to our very survival. Our brain is perfectly evolved to attempt to solve this.
Which brings us to point number 1.
Language learning gives the brain a task to focus on
An engaged mind is a happy one, it’s what the mind is designed for. Whilst going through the motions of learning, we are actively engaging our mind in the material at hand. Whether that’s new vocabulary, grammar, a reading article or watching something in the target language.
As stated before, the brain is actually perfectly evolved for this kind of mental work. Like a good workout at the gym. A language learning session can help your mind to feel more focused and energised as this is exactly what it is designed to do.
To take this useful analogy further, you can compare the positive effects of exercise on mental health. Although we no longer need to run away from tigers in the wild, our brain still derives the benefit from a good run as this is what the brain and body have been designed for.
Language learning provides a healthy escape
I would say this is the most important of the lot. When you are actively engaged in language learning you can temporarily escape from the trappings of the outside world.
This works even better if you put your phone down, turn off all your electronic devices and pick up an old-fashioned textbook.
Yes, they still exist!
You’ll be taken out of all of the day to day. Emails, tasks, phone calls, notifications etc. And into the rich and engaging world of learning.
Dedicating 30 minutes, an hour or even two to the process (if you can) will have the added benefit of allowing yourself to disconnect during that time. Relieving your mind from the stresses and strains of life.
Some more examples of ‘offline’ language learning which could provide huge benefits are:
- 1:1 or group lessons (in person)
- Revising or creating flash cards for vocabulary
- Escaping with a good book in your target language
- Reading a magazine or newspaper in your target language
- Even the news, as depressing as it might sometimes be, can be an interesting read in another language as there’ll be a completely different perspective
Language learning improves confidence
With continual learning and practice comes confidence. This is the key to it all. Knowledge is important but you can make huge strides by just being (or pretending to be) confident.
Feeling more confident in a foreign language engenders a sense of satisfaction. This confidence and satisfaction will spill out over into every aspect of your life.
Couple this with regular practice and you will create a virtuous cycle of practice, improvement and confidence. Pushing you on to the next level. Confidence and satisfaction go hand in hand.
Language learning can often also give you the feeling that you can achieve anything. I know I’ve felt that after tackling some tough languages!
Language learning creates connections with people
As the saying goes. No man (or woman) is an island. Human beings are inherently social creatures. For most people, socialising makes us feel good and happy.
Luckily for us, language learning is a social thing. There are apps of course, and a variety of self-study that you can do. But eventually you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and start practicing with real people.
This might be attending a class and speaking to classmates. Or taking private lessons where you converse with your teacher.
It may even be something much more informal like meeting with friends or family to speak the language. Or using it on holiday. Or meeting people in bars or other social events. There are endless ways you can connect with people through language learning.
Who knows, you may even meet the love of your life by speaking another language!
So this is a short resume of 4 of the ways language learning can help improve mental health. Challenge yourself. Try something today. Set aside as much time as you can, switch off or put away all electronic devices. And just focus mindfully on learning some specific aspect of your chosen language.
Notice how you feel afterwards. Make that into a habit and you’ll be well on your way. All the best with your language learning efforts!
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Founder of the UK Language Project and avid language learner.
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Feb 12 2024
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