In his book Healthy Aging, Andrew Weil, MD, describes what we can all do to protect our brains throughout our lives. On pages 284-286 Weil writes about the protective value of learning another language. There are several comments that stand out in this section for language educators. The words in italics are those of Dr. Weil, the words in other print are my comments.
IT’S THE EFFORT THAT COUNTS
“You don’t have to succeed; it is the effort that increases brains plasticity and flexibility.”
This meshes well with Carol Dweck’s findings on Mindset. Our students do not have to achieve at a preset level of proficiency. They just need to show up and pay attention. the exposure and interaction will begin to reshape their brains.
A CONTINUOUS MENTAL WORKOUT
“This is why learning another language may be a perfect challenge for people at any age. It is an ongoing, open-ended commitment that keeps you in a continuous state of mental workout, both frustrating and rewarding. There is even fascinating research showing a direct link between bilingualism and improved brain function. We know that children raised in bilingual environment acquire language skills more slowly that their monolingual counterparts but end up with greater mental proficiency.”
The open-endedness of language learning is fascinating. We can become fluent with relatively few words, but the challenge of acquiring more words, and even more languages, always remains.
BILINGUALS THINK FASTER AND BETTER
“A recent study reports that bilingual subjects, both young and old, have faster reaction times and are better able to screen our distracting information than subjects who speak only one language. The researchers suggest that the same brain processes involved in using two languages are needed to stay focused and manage attention while ignoring irrelevant information, a facility called “fluid intelligence.” Fluid intelligence is one of the first aspects of brain function to suffer in age-related cognitive decline. Therefore, proficiency at two languages ought to be protective—more so, I think, than any so-called smart drugs or supplements.”
Do your students need to develop the ability to screen out distracting information? Of course! They need the kind of fluid intelligence that language acquisition builds more today than ever.
LANGUAGE LEARNING IS NOT INTELLECTUAL
Weil continues, “By the way, I do not regard learning another language as an intellectual feat. The only talents required are the abilities to hear and to imitate sounds. After all, infants learn to speak without developed intellects and without the use of grammar books. Motivation to acquire language is essential. Infants are highly motivated, as are adults who place themselves in situations where they have to understand and make themselves understood.”
Smart guy, that Dr. Weil. He realizes that language acquisition is an acoustical phenomenon, not an intellectual one. Language is something we acquire by exposure to comprehensible input, not some mighty accomplishment that only the brainiest can achieve. In this last section, it seems like Weil has been reading material by Stephen Krashen, Bill Van Patten or even Eric Herman. Acquiring another language is not intellectual, it is auditory. Language comes in through our ears.