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Is Language Learning Positive for Mental Health?

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This article is the author’s opinion and experience only, and does not constitute health advice. If you are struggling with your mental health please seek support from a medical professional.

After the Tower of Babel was destroyed, humans who spoke different languages could not understand each other, creating barriers and leaving people feeling anxious and alone.

While this biblical tale may have only been meant as an allegory, a global pandemic has caused people all over the world to feel isolated at home, looking for something to keep them hopeful for the future. Whenever I have experienced periods of fear and hopelessness, I always turned to an everlasting fountain of motivation, engagement, and joy: language learning.

Learning German as a college student who was facing an uncertain future, picking up Spanish while teaching abroad, and studying French in between completing assignments in graduate school always served to lift my spirits and allow me access to the culture of other countries through their languages.

Where I live in California, we have been sheltering in place for four weeks. In that time, I’ve found myself pulling out old French textbooks and re-reading my Spanish-language copy of Harry Potter out loud, one of my favorite ways to learn new Spanish vocabulary.

I’ve noticed that this daily exercise of practicing my language skills has several mental health benefits:

  • Language learning keeps me from reading anxiety-inducing news reports.
  • Language learning helps direct my energy into something positive.
  • Language learning reminds me of the many connections I have made both abroad and at home as a result of being a passionate language-learner.

During a global pandemic, language learning might be the secret to maintaining a healthy outlook, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of being connected to a global community.

Language Learning Provides a Healthy Escape

Human beings feel happiest when they are working toward a goal.

Research into positive psychological wellbeing has found that the pursuit of meaningful goals has a direct relationship with overall happiness.

Industrialist and goal-setter extraordinaire Andrew Carnegie once said:

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.”

A goal can be as simple as wanting to hold a 15-minute conversation in another language. The key is that language learning has actionable steps and concrete milestones.

Whether you start from scratch and learn a handful of phrases in Italian, or you are polishing up your refined vocabulary to hold a conversation about environmental protection in Japanese, anyone can set aside some time in their day to engage with another culture through its words and perhaps less enticing for some, its grammar. I’m an English professor who finds grammar and linguistics utterly fascinating, but there is no accounting for taste.

How I Learned French By Escaping to French Podcasts

For a period of time in graduate school when daily stressors and winter weather were getting the best of me, I spent my mornings listening to language podcasts in French.

I had never formally studied French, but that was sort of the point. My day was filled with reading and assignments that were required and everything I did seemed to hold sway over my future. My mornings of French were a time for me to feel enthusiastic about learning again, just for fun.

Since I was learning French from scratch, I made massive progress in a short period of time, which gave me a sense of agency when many parts of my life felt out of my control.

During that winter, I filled a small notebook with new vocabulary and even some colloquial French phrases that helped me sound more like a native.

I went from not knowing more than a handful of words to having a conversation (albeit brief) with a friendly French transplant that I met at my college’s tutoring center. My words were halting, my pronunciation was lackluster, but the burst of pride I got from speaking in French for a couple of minutes buoyed my spirits until spring was in bloom.

Language Learning Cultivates a Growth Mindset

Language learning requires a growth mindset.

Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford describes in the book Mindset her research on developing a growth mindset, which finds that working towards a specific goal during a moment of difficulty can provide people with previously undiscovered wellsprings of self-esteem.

Dr. Dweck explains:

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Allowing yourself to make mistakes and continue learning builds persistence and resilience, two qualities that are being demanded by the logistical, economic, and social consequences of a global pandemic.

Many people, myself included, suffer from daily anxiety over matters like work, home, and relationships. My belief is that this stems from an overwhelming emphasis on the appearance of perfection.

How Language Learning Helps Me as a Recovering Perfectionist

Learning a language can be a useful tool for a recovering perfectionist and anxious over-thinkers alike.

Not only does daily practice of a language provide a bit of armchair cultural exchange, but speaking the language from day one means confronting the inevitable mistakes and miscommunications that result from trying to learn a foreign tongue.

Just as no one would judge a child who misuses their native language incorrectly as they are learning to speak, I have found that other speakers of Spanish, German, and French to be endlessly supportive and encouraging as I muddle my way through their verb conjugations.

Additionally, over the years of adopting a “speak from day one” approach, I have become accustomed to the wonderful learning opportunity inherent in making mistakes while speaking a new language.

Over the years, I’ve started to embrace making mistakes since I’ve learned that there are often areas where I can grow. This helps me to be more compassionate towards myself, not just in language learning, but in all areas of my life. Not knowing the right word or confusing verb tenses reminds me that I still have work to do, and that’s a good thing. Making mistakes in language learning and then trying again builds my resilience as if it were a muscle, and I am also able to recognize how frequently other people that I admire are resilient in the face of mistakes, large or small.

One of the best strategies to learn a language that I discovered was to imagine how I feel whenever I hear someone trying to speak English.

This is a common occurrence as I teach introductory writing courses at a community college, where many of my students are originally from other countries. When they are brave enough to raise their hands and speak English in front of the whole class, I never focus on their mistakes. My heart swells with pride.

When I was first learning French, I thought of those students and imagined my fellow Francophones were just feeling proud of me for trying to speak la belle langue.

Language Learning Helps Me Channel My Anxiety

This is a moment in history where many people are experiencing major instances of anxiety and overwhelm. In my opinion, some of that anxiety can be positively-redirected. In my experience, I would much rather feel anxious about testing out my newfound language skills on someone virtually through a language exchange than sit in my home anxiously refreshing the news headlines.

Moreover, I’ve found that there is no need to be anxious because that nervous energy quickly transforms into a lively conversation with my language tutor, even when I have to rely on basic vocabulary or even my language dictionaries. Language learning is an opportunity to see how anxiety can be transformed into resilience and connection.

A Sense of Connection – More Important Than Ever

Learning to speak a new language provides a deeply-rooted sense of connection to a new culture.

As I read short stories in French or watch a German friend’s travel series for Deutschewelle, I am practicing my language skills and also diving deeper into the culture of those people.

Perhaps more significant than the pronunciation practice I received, that conversation with the French tutor introduced me to an entire world that already existed in my community: the local Francophone group who met on Wednesday nights to have wine, eat cheese, and speak the language of la République.

Not only was I learning colloquial expressions and dynamic French vocabulary, I came home from those evenings feeling like I had uncovered a new community of friends.

My normal pattern of winter isolation and loneliness were playfully whisked away by these delightful French speakers.

In our overwhelmingly technologically-connected world, many people still feel a lingering sense of loneliness. Rates of loneliness have gone up so high that some researchers have referred to a “loneliness epidemic.” Language learning can provide a sense of connection with others, even those who live on the other side of the planet.

While many of us many not be able to leave our homes for the foreseeable future, that technologically-globalized world can serve to bring us together. Language learners are all over the world, often available through various platforms to have a chat with those learning their language in exchange for a bit of practice in their target language.

Not only are resources for any language available online, but there is a robust community of language learners looking for someone to practice with, like a virtual version of my French circle, waiting to share a moment of human connection. We have been reminded that we live in a globalized world by the looming threat of illness and death.

Let us also remember that our globalized world is full of other people, reaching out to connect, and perhaps have a chat, if you are willing to be brave.

A global pandemic is certainly cause for great anxiety and sadness, but as many people are staying home and finding new activities to keep themselves occupied, I suggest the wonderful adventure of learning a new language.

Language learning is a mental health hack not only because it can serve as a healthy alternative to endlessly refreshing the news, but it also build your resilience, connect you with other people and cultures around the world, and inspire a bit of fun. Eventually, when we can all go out to restaurants and travel again, you just might have the chance to roadtest your newly-acquired language skills.

author headshot

Maureen Wiley

Assistant Professor of English

Maureen is an enthusiastic teacher and student of languages. She teaches English at Cañada College and enjoys reading Harry Potter in Spanish.

Speaks: English, Spanish, German, French

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