Opinion | Language learning builds for success

By Ashanti McLaurin, Staff Columnist

I’ve been surrounded by different languages since I was a child. 

My childhood neighbors in New York were from Bangladesh, so I learned a little bit of Bengali. It was a requirement in my high school to learn a foreign language, so I took French for a year — don’t ask me if I remember, I forgot everything except how to say, “I love the beach.” My family is also Muslim, so I hear Arabic when they pray. My mom and her family are from Jamaica, so I understand Patois. My sister and my friends speak Spanish, so when I go back home to North Carolina I’m constantly surrounded by Spanish — also because there is a large Spanish speaking community there.

I’ve been so fascinated hearing other languages and seeing how people can communicate with one another that it led me to start watching a lot, and I mean a lot, of language learning videos. My YouTube search bar consists of the words “polyglot” and “Arabic” as I look up ways to improve my language studying, even watching television shows and movies to grasp more vocabulary.

Once I transferred to Pitt my sophomore year, it was a requirement for me to take a language. I picked Mandarin Chinese to learn, as I’ve always been intrigued watching movies, shows and listening to music in Mandarin. I’ve been learning the language for two years now and am now pursuing it as a minor — first because I’ve put so much time into it, second because I enjoyed learning so much about the language and culture. I’ve also started learning Spanish to try and communicate with my friends closer.

Ever since I started wanting to learn languages, I’ve felt there are two main reasons why it’s important:

Good for brain development 

A study by the National Institutes of Health showed how bilingual children were able to switch tasks faster than monolingual children by using different colors and pictures of animals. Researchers said that when the children were asked to switch, from animals to a color, and press a different button for the new category, bilinguals were faster at making the change than were the monolinguals.

As a child, I know I felt overwhelmed when my dad, grandmother or sister would ask me to do multiple different things, so I would be behind when facing each task at hand. Meanwhile, children who start learning another language, especially at a young age, are able to differentiate and switch tasks based on their situation. So I may have been able to cope better if I had the skills learning multiple languages provides.

Also, according to the World Economic Forum, learning a language can help prevent the development of dementia, and bilingualism can help the brain perform better at tasks and improve multitasking. As we get older, we want to maintain our brain health. I know once I get older, I want my brain to stay as sharp as it is now in college, and my hopes are that language learning will help me achieve that goal.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages also states that learning another language can increase long- and short-term memory function, implying further that learning more than one language can be very beneficial.

Being able to communicate with people

Through my language learning journey, I’ve learned that certain words, phrases and idioms are better expressed in that certain language or don’t translate in English. As someone who wants to pursue magazine journalism, I know I will encounter a lot of people of different backgrounds. Learning different languages, or multilingualism, can help break language barriers when encountering people who speak different languages.

Language learning is very fun, and contrary to popular belief, it can be easy. Now, I’m not saying you’ll be fluent in a day, but with motivation, discipline and practice you’ll be able to speak, read and write in your target language sooner than you think. Many apps like Duolingo, Drops and Memrise can guide the beginning stages of your language journey. I use these apps when I want to brush up on my Chinese once a week, and I’m using them now to learn Spanish. 

I want to travel the world and report on global issues in different countries. I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone and learning languages so I can understand and interact with a greater portion of the world — and you can too. Taking language classes or studying abroad can be expensive, but at home, immersing yourself in language and culture is achievable. You’ve already started and haven’t realized.

Ashanti McLaurin primarily writes about Black culture, human injustices and gives life advice. Write to her at [email protected].