It is easy to see why people would want to learn a second (or third, fourth or fifth) language, no matter what their age.
Along with creating professional, social and economic opportunities, current research suggests that speakers of two of more languages enjoy cognitive advantages, including increased attention control, working memory, metalinguistic awareness, and abstract and symbolic representation skills (journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0034654310368803).
Learning more than one language is credited with brain-training, which enhances attention and memory, as well as helping with the recovery of stroke victims (stroke.ahajournals.org/content/early/2015/11/19/STROKEAHA.115.010418).
One study even argued that language learning combatted the onset of symptoms in dementia patients (www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/11/06/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4).
The scientific benefits of language learning are clear, but which approaches are supported by recent research? Findings released by the University of Cambridge in 2011 suggest that unconscious learning may be the best way to expedite language learning (www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/unconscious-language-learning).
This has nothing to do with learning while you sleep. Instead the term describes the ability to pick up on the complex and subtle regularities that form the foundations of a language, without even realising it. This process seems to happen spontaneously in the first few years of life, but becomes far more difficult in adulthood.
Currently there is no reliable way of testing whether unconscious learning is taking place, or what role it plays in first and second language learning.
John Williams of the department of theoretical and applied linguistics has argued that, " using tasks that focus attention on the relevant grammatical forms in language could help learners access unconscious learning pathways in the brain. This would greatly enhance the speed of acquisition of a second language."
Interestingly, the benefits of language learning are even extended to those who speak more than one dialect (Wu, Mandarin, Hokkien or Min for example).
Research, again from the University of Cambridge, suggests that those who speak more than one dialect enjoy the same cognitive benefits as those who speak more than one language (www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/opinion-speaking-dialects-trains-the-brain-as-well-as-bilingualism-does).
The difference in the distance between languages and dialects doesn't seem to matter to our brains. In one recent study with the University of Cyprus and the Cyprus University of Technology, children who spoke more than one dialect where show to enjoy better memory, attention and cognitive flexibility under test conditions (bibi.ulb.ac.be/Bibi/English.html).
A similar study from Norway showed that children who wrote in more than one dialect had improved exam results (www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13670050.2015.1051507?jour=nalCode%3Drbeb20&).
So, according to work of this nature, if you chat away in Hong Kong while also conversing with family in China, you have no excuse for not breaking out the Italian or Hindi tapes. The advantages of bilingualism seem to arise with any combination of language varieties that differ enough to challenge the brain, even if they are both close members of the same language family.
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