Last week, U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy III, provided the Democrat’s official response to President Trump’s State of the Union Address. During his speech, Kennedy addressed Dreamers in fluent Spanish, vowing to fight for them. Kennedy is one of only 20 percent of Americans who are able to speak a second language.
There are many reasons why people learn a new language, including increasing one’s understanding of other cultures, as well as improving job prospects. There is another benefit of learning a new language that people may not be aware of: the benefits to brain health.
If people aren’t learning new languages due to the new technology, then they are not getting the related brain health benefits including helping stay sharp mentally as you age.
Scientists have shown that learning a new language engages the property of neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reshape or reorganize itself, which is important because this allows the brain to compensate for any injury or diseases that occur as we age. It appears that bilingualism has strong benefits for memory and attention, and overall brain health, which has potential benefits for us as we age. Therefore, neuroscience researchers are calling for additional studies to examine the mechanism and effects of additional language acquisition in promoting healthy cognitive function as we age.
However, now people may be less motivated to learn other languages because, in the past year, huge strides have been made in bringing affordable real-time voice translation technology to the market. A language used by one person can quickly be translated into another language and transmitted to a speaker system on the other end. The Pilot which debuted last year uses an earpiece and can be pre-ordered for $249. Google now allows for 40 languages to be quickly translated through the already highly used Google Translate combined with new technology that uses Pixel Buds, which costs $159. Skype Translator also provides a translation service that can be downloaded to your technology devices.
Certainly, this new language technology has many attractive features. It can play a significant role in decreasing barriers that people face when traveling internationally, acclimating to a new country where they are unfamiliar with the language, or handling linguistic occupational challenges when providing services to individuals whose language they don’t speak. Also, the world’s citizens now have an easier way to communicate, without engaging in the arduous prep work needed to learn a new language.
It is probably safe to say that this once upon a time Star Trek-like technology is here to stay.
In fact, as the market demands increase, the technology will continue to improve. Since we work with people around the globe, we will also likely be end users. But what scientists don’t know yet is if people will experience positive cognitive benefits in using this new language technology. This technology may cause some people to be less apt to learn a new language, and therefore miss out on the benefits of learning a new language, including the brain health-related benefits.
We’re not advocating against the use of this technology; rather, we are encouraging you to not let it take the place of actually learning a foreign language. If you already are learning a new language, then keep doing so. If not, it is time to get started. Use whatever techniques work well for you.
Pull out those language books and flashcards, use your foreign language audio-video links, and engage in classroom learning as well as talking with your bilingual and multilingual friends.
Unlike the United States, in Europe 66 percent of all adults are able to speak more than one language. Recently, one of our relatives found himself in a church service in a European country. One of the local parishioners quickly recognized that he was struggling to keep up with the service. This parishioner then sat by him and, in a whispered voice, translated the service to him from her native language into English. When he called his family later that day, he tearfully shared with them this amazing opportunity and spoke about how he had felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude about this experience. However, human-to-human language translation experiences like this one are at risk of becoming diminished due to new technology. We each should make an intentional effort to learn new languages, no matter how convenient the technology.
Susan Weber Buchholz, PhD, RN, FAANP, is a professor at the Rush University College of Nursing, and is an adult nurse practitioner and a physical activity researcher. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.
Shannon Halloway, PhD, RN, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Rush University College of Nursing, and a neurocognitive physical activity researcher. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.