13 Fascinating Mental Health & Other Psychological Benefits of Learning a Second Language

Research is continually discovering psychological benefits of learning a second language.

Those who learn another language are able to learn from their mistakes more easily, think and analyse more effectively, and make more unbiased decisions.

Learning a foreign language results in reduced anxiety and depression, and increased empathy and EQ.

Skills in conflict management, planning and dealing with ambiguity are strengthened, and it may even reduce the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

#1 – More Easily Learn From Others

Learning from others would have to be one of the most efficient ways I have reduced pain in my life.

I distinctly remember learning the lesson. I was about 18 years old. Just months before I told my mother I had to ‘be allowed to make my own mistakes.’

(Don’t you love the ignorance of kids?? I laugh now. Like I laughed when my own child said that to me!)

What I really meant, of course, was ‘stop telling me what to do. I don’t want to be regulated by your expectations.’

But I really did think that I wanted to try everything. And I thought I was willing to endure making mistakes.

That thought lasted all of 6 months. Then the pain of wrong and unwise decisions convinced me I should learn from the mistakes other people were making!

There is something in the growth of the executive functioning area of the brain that helps us see this more quickly.

It helps us be more able to extrapolate personal lessons from the experience of others.1

(Quick – someone convince my kids to acquire new languages!)

#2 – More Resistant to Manipulation

Research shows that making decisions in a language NOT learned as a child helps to eliminate emotional bias from the process.

Thinking in a foreign language caused the decision making process itself to become more objective, and less susceptible to ‘Framing Effect‘ and ‘Loss Aversion Bias‘.

Framing Effect‘ happens when a person’s answer to a question is influenced by the way in which the question is presented.

One of my favourite examples of how Framing Effect can be used for nefarious purposes is found in this clip from “Yes, Prime Minister” (a British political satire/ comedy aired in the 1980s. (Copyright BBC.))

Excerpt from the 1st Season of Yes Prime Minister – Episode 2, The Ministerial Broadcast.

However, when information is presented in a foreign language (that is learned as an adult), individuals are less affected by the framing effect, and more able to make an objective, logical decision.2

Interestingly, the framing effect is also reduced in those who are bilingual3, if the information comes in a spoken form.

#3 – Make More Objective Decisions

Loss Aversion Bias‘ refers to an individual’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Given the choice, we would rather NOT LOSE $10 more than we would like to FIND $10.

As with the Framing Effect, Loss Aversion Bias also seems to be mitigated by presenting information in a foreign language.

Thinking in a foreign language both changes the decisions that people make, and these decisions are also more systematic and normative4 5.  Another study replicated this effect.

Furthermore, the researchers tested the foreign language effect on other biases that involved decision-making under risk and uncertainty.

People show less aversion to risk and to ambiguity, and are more consistent with their choices, when they make their decisions in a foreign language.

#4 – Reduce Anxiety Around Emotional Subjects

I first became aware of the way a second language can provide help provide mental distance against emotional information when earlier in 2020, after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Freelance writer and language learner, Olivia Walters posted how she found it much less stressful thinking about and dealing with her thoughts about COVID-19 in French rather than English.

There is a great deal of research indicating bilingual people frequently use a second language to increase emotional distance.6 Conversely, they also use a more familiar language to increase intimacy.

Research into psychophysiological responses to emotional language demonstrates we react less emotionally when operating in our second language.

So, if like Olivia you find yourself getting quite anxious about a situation – reduce your anxiety levels by thinking and talking about it in a less familiar language.

#5 – Increase Open Mindedness and Self Awareness

“To know another language is also to know more about how others think”.

Steven Poole

Learning a second language usually comes along with increased cross-cultural knowledge. We learn that other people live differently, have different values and make different choices to us. Learning about another culture can also highlight aspects of our own culture—both positive and negative—we may not have previously noticed.

As we learn about other cultural ways, and our own, we have the opportunity to grow in both openmindedness and in self awareness.

We can realise that, just because we behave a particular way does not inherently make it ‘right’, nor make another way ‘wrong’. They are just different outworkings of different histories, values and cultural norms.

We mentioned earlier that one theory of linguistics is that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ perception of the world around them.

In this theory, people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language.

Someone who knows more than one language might also experience change to their perception of the world.

‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs) are people who spent a significant period of time growing up in a culture other than their own. People such as the children of military personnel or other professionals who live in another country.

Research into multilingualism/multiculturalism, acculturation and personality found that TCKs scored higher for openmindedness and cultural empathy than the control group.7

The number and fluency of languages known by the participants was also significant.

Those more fluent in more languages scored “significantly higher” in openmindedness and “marginally higher” for cultural empathy than those just starting to learn languages.

As we have discussed in other sections, openmindedness is not only a benefit of language learning. It also works in a positive feedback loop to help learn new languages.8

#6 – See Things From Another Perspective

It seems multilingual children, and those exposed to a multilingual environment can better interpret a speaker’s meaning.9

We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars — small, medium and large — but were in position to observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s “medium.”

…Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.

Katherine Kinzler10

#7 – Increase Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

To be able to experience empathy, we need to be able to see the world from another’s perspective… to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’.

We have already mentioned that learning a second language often involves learning about the societies and cultures of the language.

It also changes the way one sees the world.11

Greater understanding promotes greater tolerance, empathy, and acceptance of others.12

Studies show people who have studied another language are more open toward the culture associated with that language. They also express more positive attitudes toward the culture.

Exposure to a foreign language serves as a means of helping children to intercultural competence. The awareness of a global community can be enhanced when children have the opportunity to experience involvement with another culture through a foreign language (emphasis mine).

Curtain & Dahlberg13

Empathy is also linked to executive function, and all aspects of executive functioning are strenthened in those who have learned languages.

These assumptions support specific research into multilingualism and empathy14 that demonstrates a link between multilingualism and empathy.

Even more interesting, more frequent use of multiple languages results in higher levels of empathy.

#8 – Higher Emotional Intelligence

Humans are emotional beings. Emotion colours every action, decision and judgement.

People with higher emotional intelligence understand this. They use their thinking to “recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”15

Emotional Intelligence is linked to, but not quite the same as empathy.

Empathy is being able to see things from the perspective of another person. Emotional intelligence is knowing what to do with that information.

Bilingualism has a small but significant correlation with increased emotional intelligence.16

And once again, there is a positive feedback loop with some components of emotional intelligence assisting language learning.17

#9 – Deal More Easily with Ambiguity

People who are multilingual are frequently more relaxed when dealing with situations involving ambiguity.18 The higher the level of multilingualism, the higher the tolerance for ambiguity.

The ability to tolerate ambiguity in life is a trait that has interested psychologists across a range of areas.

Ambiguity tolerance is linked to how a person will react to many of life’s realities, both short and long term.19

Psychologists use ambiguity tolerance to measure adaptation abilities and healthy functioning.

Those with a low tolerance for ambiguity are more inclined to need more structure. They also are more prone to anxiety and tend to be more authoritarian.20

Ambiguity tolerance was also found to be another positive feedback loop. The same researchers found high levels of tolerance ambiguity can also help a person become multilingual.

#10 – Improves Your Mood

One of the more unusual benefits of learning a second language was discovered by researchers looking at the role of reward in the brain of the language learner when learning new words.

It seems learning new vocabulary makes us feel good!21

Using an fMRI to watch brain function, participants were given a language learning task to perform on a computer.

Doing the task made reward areas of the brain light up. Which ones? Those areas activated by money, pleasant odours, pleasurable drinks, good food, or sex.

To quote Diana Gitig, “expanding their vocabulary is just a huge turn on; it feels so good they can’t resist”.22 

Or, as Vocabulary.com put it, learning new words feels as good as eating chocolate!23

Interestingly there is a physiological reason why some people learned better than others.

“Those with… a better [neural] connection to the reward area – were able to learn more words,” said Pablo Ripollés, one of the researchers.24

#11 – Prevent Dementia and Alzheimers

There have been many studies into the positive effects of learning languages on the development of dementia, in particular Alzheimer’s.

However, on further investigation it seems the issue is actually not so clear. Many studies (especially retrospective studies) do seem to indicate that language learning and bilingualism delay dementia. However, longitudinal studies do not show such a causative relationship.25

Given all we have seen about the cognitive benefits of learning languages, I believe we will find more evidence that language learning helps ward against dementia.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other more general benefits, as we have seen!

#12 – Strengthen Conflict Management Abilities

As we mentioned earlier, researchers believe that constantly switching between languages strengthens control processes and sensory processing by alternatively using attention and inhibition processes.

Some researchers believe that having strong attention and inhibition processes in the brain also seems to strengthen conflict resolution processes.26 However other research has not supported this suggestion.27

#13 – Improves Planning Skills

Planning skills depend highly on attention, focus and switching abilities.

So it can reasonably be assumed that bilingualism would improve planning abilities. Very little study has actually gone into this area.

One piece of research found a limited improvement in planning abilities in a bilingual group, as opposed to a monolingual group.28

But the issue really needs more investigation before you could say that knowing a second language improves planning abilities.

Conclusion

In many ways, the brain is like a muscle – it responds well to being used, and not so well to being neglected. As we have seen, learning languages is like an extensive cross-fit workout for the brain.

It causes growth and new neural connections all around. It grows with new knowledge, such as adding vocabulary and learning grammar rules, and it also grows in the ability to apply knowledge to new situations.

As research continues in this area, I expect we will hear of more psychological benefits of learning a second language.


This post is part of my series on Benefits of Learning a Second Language. Read the other posts here:

  1. Unlock the Advantages of Multilingualism: 35 Ways a Second Language Benefits You
  2. Social Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  3. Personal Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  4. Cultural Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  5. Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  6. Psychological Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  7. Academic Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  8. Professional Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  9. Language Learning Benefits of Learning a Second Language

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC123666/
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/01434632.2019.1585863?scroll=top&needAccess=true
  3. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2019.1585863
  4. Keysar B., Hayakawa S. L., An S. G. (2012). The foreign-language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological Science, 23, 661–668. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797611432178 last accessed 6 June, 2024.
  5. Costa A., Foucart A., Arnon I., Aparici M., Apesteguia J. (2014). “Piensa” twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making. Cognition, 130, 236–254. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S001002771300228X, last accessed 6 June, 2024.
  6. http://www.bu.edu/psych/charris/papers/BilingualTaboo.pdf
  7. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14790710903039906
  8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228084793_Personality_and_L2_use_The_advantage_of_being_openminded_and_self-confident_in_an_immigration_context
  9. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615574699
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/opinion/sunday/the-superior-social-skills-of-bilinguals.html
  11. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2009.00983.x
  12. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dennis_Mazur/post/What_are_the_impacts_of_bilingual_education_for_economics_lives_and_quality_of_life_on_a_global_scale/attachment/59d6581979197b80779ae282/AS%3A537103176290304%401505066784981/download/BenefitsofSecondLanguage.pdf
  13. Curtain, Helena and Carol Ann Dahlberg. (2004) Languages and Children: Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grades K-8. Third Edition. New York: Longman.
  14. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2012.714380
  15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_intelligence
  16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367006918813597
  17. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/74388374/emotional-intelligence-predictive-power-iranian-foreign-language-learners-language-achievement
  18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1366728912000570
  19. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00344/full#B23
  20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambiguity_tolerance%E2%80%93intolerance
  21. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(14)01207-X
  22. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/02/27/sex-drugs-and-vocabulary-hedonism-not-only-thing-that-rewards-the-brain/
  23. https://www.vocabulary.com/articles/under-the-hood/can-word-learning-feel-as-good-as-eating-chocolate/
  24. https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/learning-new-language-stimulates-same-pleasure-centres-brain-sex-chocolate-1471766
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5656355/
  26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583091/
  27. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283506365_The_impact_of_bilingualism_on_conflict_control
  28. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00323/full#h6

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strine