Language as Brain Exercise

I just got home from a few days in Washington DC (post and pictures to follow). On the return flight I was surrounded by like 12 French foreign exchange students on their way to summer adventures in Utah. Back in 2005 I lived in Quebec for a year and half and during that time became fluent in French. Today, 9 years later, that fluency is in serious question. As I sat there between the fast-talking teenage francophones I was surprised how much of their conversations blew right past me. Of course there was plenty I did understand, like “this plane smells like french fries,” and “you just hit that lady with your bag, be careful,” and “I’m not even tired after all this traveling, seriously.” I know in general the Parisians speak a little quicker than the Quebecoise, but I was really dismayed at how sluggish my mind was at keeping up. I worked really hard to learn French, and made a fool of myself A LOT by speaking to the locals and completely immersing myself in the language every single day.

When I visited Quebec a few years after returning to the states I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly things came back. As soon as I started speaking, words I forgot I even knew came up from the deeper parts of my brain to take their place in a sentence. Every minute of communication became easier. But today, I’m not sure that would be the case. I was so in love with listening to those kids talk on the plane and my mind started racing in French, but I was too afraid to open my mouth and muddle through a conversation. I really need to do something about that.

speak-french-quebecThis morning I read an article in the New York Times that gave me another reason to get back to practicing my French. “The Benefits of Failing at French” says that studying another language provides crucial exercise for your brain that enhances cognitive abilities and fortifies your memory.

“Last year researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Northwestern University in Illinois hypothesized that language study should prove beneficial for older adults, noting that the cognitive tasks involved ā€” including working memory, inductive reasoning, sound discrimination and task switching ā€” map closely to the areas of the brain that are most associated with declines due to aging. In other words, the things that make second-language acquisition so maddening for grown-ups are the very things that may make the effort so beneficial.”

I think I’ll try a little harder to keep what I worked so hard to gain – another language, a beautiful form of expression, and a sharper brain.

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