People who don’t exercise for even a short period of time are always amazed at how quickly their muscles lose their strength. Equally amazing is how much hard work it takes to get back into shape. It’s like that with our brains, too. If you don’t challenge your thinking abilities, all the synapses, the connections between brain cells, get weak from inactivity. Think about how you feel after you spend many hours sitting and staring at the television. You may feel relaxed enough to go to bed, but you also feel dull, dim, and not exactly sparked by the experience. But when you push yourself beyond your normal routine and use your brain to learn something new, you feel energized, alert, and more positive about life in general. Even if you are not a couch potato, shaking things up by by varying your activities helps to keep you energized. Like the muscles in our bodies, our brains crave a good workout; they want to be stretched and used and stimulated. The admonishment to “use it or lose it” applies to every aspect of our lives!
The best news is that it is never too late to start using our brains. Research has shown that challenging ourselves is one of the most important things we can do to minimize any loss of our cognitive abilities as we age. Many older people recognize this need to keep the brain in shape; they might take up a musical instrument, read lots of books, or complete the daily crossword or sudoku puzzles in the newspapers. Lots of people also choose to learn a second language. All of these efforts result in a very similar consequence: when people engage their minds with challenging activities, they are sharper; they feel really good about the process, and they like the satisfaction they get from achieving their goals. But learning a new language brings an even bigger reward package to maturing individuals. A new language is about communicating; it is social, and it’s about people and culture. When you finish a puzzle, you are done with it. But when you learn a second language, worlds open up to you.
Learning a second language helps to combat the isolation that is another known negative factor in the aging process. Experts tell us we do better when we interact with others, have a social network, and get involved with group dynamics. Joining a class of like-minded individuals is a great way to be a participant and not just a spectator. If the common purpose is to speak in another language, all the better. You learn together, practice with each other, and help each other over the difficult parts. If you take your new language skills on a visit to another country, you add another layer of interactivity, communication, and involvement.
When you think about the process of becoming bilingual, you begin to see a wide range of brain-expanding attributes that will rejuvenate your faculties. Consider what happens when you attempt to learn just a single new noun. You read it, you hear it spoken, you visualize the thing it represents; you say it aloud and use it in a sentence; you memorize it. You are using your senses, and all the synapses in your brain are in action! And that’s only from taking the very first steps toward becoming bilingual. Learning a second language reinvigorates a vast number of connections in your brain; it will keep you feeling healthy, vital, involved, and alive. Consider taking your own first step toward learning a new language; it’s a great way to give your brain a workout!