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Learning languages: The cultural and neurological significance of travel

When thinking about travelling the world, most people imagine long days out in the sun exploring a new and exciting country. What often doesn’t spring to mind is that all too familiar moment which occurs at the front of a queue in a local shop when you are left standing, looking blankly at someone who has just posed you a question, in a language you don’t speak. For many Brits abroad this is an unfortunate reality which occurs far too often. It is also at this moment that many find themselves having a change of heart, exclaiming ‘I wish I’d paid more attention to languages at school!’.

Why is it that travel suddenly unlocks the desire to be able to speak a foreign language? Is going abroad really the key to broadening our linguistic horizons, or can the process of acquiring a foreign language help us on that journey, from the comfort of our own sofa?

The study has revealed that learning a foreign language can make your brain bigger

Over the past decade, researchers from around the world have been investigating the impact of language acquisition on the brain. Whilst the quote: ‘Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom’ is a well-known phrase in almost every corner of the globe, the recent findings of a Swedish research group suggest there is now hard evidence to support this proverb. The study has revealed that learning a foreign language can make your brain bigger. Using MRI scans to analyse the brains of two groups of students, it became apparent that those who had been studying languages had a distinctly more developed hippocampus and cerebral cortex in the area linked to language acquisition.

Anyone can experience the benefits of language acquisition on the brain

The clear difference between the two groups was not the only major finding of the study. Even within the group of language students, individual variations were recorded. Those participants who had better language skills experienced more brain development than others. Therefore, the old wives’ tale that some people have a head for languages is an idea which perhaps shouldn’t be completely brushed under the carpet. But in short, this research does not want to suggest that the composition of our brain dictates whether we can or cannot learn languages. Anyone can experience the benefits of language acquisition on the brain.

Language and communication are some of the most basic human skills, and they are just a few of the many things which distinguish mankind from other animals. Executive functions are linked to the most complex processes which occur in the brain and drive these innately human capabilities. The more of a second language we learn, the more these functions and areas of the brain become agile and healthy. In more scientific terms, the more of a second language we know, the more white matter builds in these areas of the brain. With more white matter come more neurons to improve brain function. Therefore, even knowing just a few words or phrases, white matter will start to build and brain function and communication will optimise.

Being one of the most human functions means that, aside from the scientific elements, communication is also a shared, emotional experience. It is perhaps for this reason that travel ignites the desire to communicate clearly in many individuals. The emotional connections which can be built through clear communication are often much more tangible and therefore more motivating than the effects of language acquisition on the brain.

On the most basic level, being able to speak the local language will make travelling easier. There won’t be the need for Google Translate to constantly be open on your phone, or to have those intense five minutes of trying to figure out whether you’re on the right train because there are no English signposts. Even if you start acquiring these words and phrases whilst abroad, daily stresses will start to melt away as your language learning journey progresses.

Of course, from time to time, it’s likely that you won’t be able to discern the pesky bus timetable, despite understanding all of the words, but speaking the language means the art of conversation is ready and waiting to save the day. And with every new conversation also comes the potential for new relationships to be built.

There is no doubt that these exchanges will involve a few wrong words and a bit of broken grammar, but they don’t need to be perfect. The brilliance of travelling rather than being a local is that everyone will understand that you are still learning. There is no pressure to be perfect.

At least being able to try and use the local lingo means connections can start to form through the exchange of a few words and smiles. These connections might simply come in the form of mutual respect for the country you are in, and the person you are talking to. Kindness is often a simple act, and even just trying to speak a local language, no matter how confident you may or may not be, is an easy way to demonstrate this.

But if conversations can start to flow with relatively little planning of how and what you are going to say, you’ve hit the jackpot! Arriving at this point almost lets you pass into another world when speaking another language. A small confidence starts to bubble up inside and new mannerisms, ways of putting things, and expressions start to permeate the body. It’s an experience which can’t be fully explained unless you’ve experienced it.

Travelling gives you the ability to understand the texture of a language

Having spent substantial time travelling abroad and learning languages, I returned home to England with different versions of myself tucked away, ready to be unleashed once I clicked back into speaking French and Spanish. The best way of putting it is that travelling gives you the ability to understand the texture of a language. For me, being in the country meant language moved away from being something which was simply put together like building blocks, each locking together in specific patterns and rules. Suddenly there was something to play with and manipulate. Pushing, hearing, and playing with how a language works is the best thing that travel gave me. Without physically being in the country and immersed in travelling, it is very difficult to gain this sense of a language’s texture.

Yet, immersion and texture don’t only exist in relation to linguistic phenomena. Culture is inextricably linked to language. The two sit hand in hand and allow anyone, regardless of their language level, to gain a more authentic cultural experience. Being able to understand the local language brings you closer to the culture you’re experiencing as you are plunged headfirst into the workings of a country, its people, and its history. This is the case whether you have a sense of a language’s texture and can feel every ounce of a character’s anger in the play you’re watching, or you simply feel ‘very French’ going to order your morning pastry like a local, asking promptly ‘je prends une chocolatine s’il vous plait’.

When using a language abroad, no matter how much you can say or how often you use it, each speaker will experience that same satisfying rush and sense of achievement at the end of a conversation

However, the true beauty of this lies in the fact that it is all relative. When using a language abroad, no matter how much you can say or how often you use it, each speaker will experience that same satisfying rush and sense of achievement at the end of a conversation. So, whilst the journey of learning a foreign language can start to expand your mind while sitting comfortably at home, it is arguably travel which unlocks this deeper sense of enjoyment. Once you have some tools at your fingertips to start speaking a language, you are passed the key to being able to see the world with a whole new perspective. So why not get out there? No matter how daunting travel may be, having a language at your side can change the entire experience.


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