Benefits of Studying Another Language

LanguageA couple months ago I found this article on the benefits of studying a second language.  Sometimes it helps motivate me when my classes are frustrating.  A few highlights from the article:

  1. Stave off dementia.  Bilingual individuals apparently are likely to stave off dementia by up to five years.
  2. Increased attention.  As those that meditate know, practice concentrating and it is easier to concentrate on all problems.  Language study and the attention required to interpret an unfamiliar language is such an act of concentration.
  3. New views on life.  The article references and example of Japanese but I like this one of Chinese: did you know that the Chinese word for thin (?) includes a component that is used in words that describe disease and sickness?  That shows how much the early Chinese admired their plump friends and family.

In summarizing many of my previous observations and rants, I will offer a few reasons of my own on the benefits of studying a second language:

  1. Exercise your humility.  Learning any language will always introduce you to people fluent in that language.  Comparing your proficiency with theirs is a constant exercise in humility.
  2. Build confidence.  The most accomplished linguists are fearless.  They use every word they know at every opportunity without fear of the listener’s response.  Force yourself to do this and it must translate into life’s other activities.
  3. Round out your intelligence.  Language intelligence is a distinct component of our multi-dimensional intelligence.  Develop it.
  4. Broaden your cultural horizons.  It is veritably impossible to learn a new language without meeting people from different cultures.  Cultural understanding provides an incredible context to history and national politics.


EmpathyFriday was one of my worst days at Chinese class.  Bad days are common for me.  Some days I feel I cannot keep up with the teacher.  Some days I struggle to speak in response to questions.  Some days I want to quit.  Friday was one of them.

Struggling in class unfamiliar to me.  I was always a good student.  But the feeling of failing is a utterly foreign.  And most days in this rediscovery of student life I feel that way.

In some of my many musings on dimensions of intelligence I recognize the vast differences in people’s abilities to pick up new skills.  Athletes with kinesthetic intelligence quickly master a new sport.  Creative savants can piece together fascinating art with unplanned materials.  And historically those gifted with language have been the first of their culture to cross geographic divides into foreign lands.  Imagine the first European linguists using their genius to decode the strange tongues in North America with zero context or reference.

In language there is surely a continuum of capabilities defined not just by experience but an innate intelligence. It spans from the genius Europeans that first spoke with southern Africans and native Americans to the dullards that cannot imitate or comprehend a strange uttering.  I am not so pessimistic as to sort myself completely at the simpleton’s side of this range.  But in a class full of people interested in learning a new language, I know I am one of the closest to it.

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Changing Tactics

Storm CloudsMany of my post-employment blog posts have revolved around my Chinese studies and how they have challenged one of my weakest capabilities (language). Today was one my worst days. And the second toughest was on Friday of last week, when I walked out of class an hour early. The last week has not gone well for me.  It briefly passed my mind to consider quitting class today and instead spend my time on another project. But I remembered previous advice I shared here. I think I am now back on track.

I recognized in early June that I would have good and bad days. Our mind tends to project the future based on our most recent experiences. From one catastrophic day we are blinded from seeing two months of success. In trying to see the big picture, I am reminded of a humbling, true and somewhat funny witticism: no matter how amazing or embarrassing you were today approximately one billion Chinese people could not give a damn.  That really puts things in perspective.

My bad day started as others have: I had misunderstood previous instructions and arrived unprepared. While everyone else reviewed their mock final test I sat there on my own. That was today’s first hour. It was not fun to see everyone else getting prepared for Wednesday’s final while I sat on the sidelines. My mind was in a bad place, for sure. One thing that helped me get back on track today was an exercise in positivity I developed with guidance from Mush Panjwani. Specifically Amy Cuddy’s posture advice had a dramatic effect on my mental state when I followed it in our ten minute break. That stuff works.

But today I made another discovery with respect to my Chinese studies. I need to change tactics. And this is fairly easily done.

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Improving Multi-dimensional Intelligence

GeniusMany years ago I saw a program on the Discovery Channel.  In the show several types of “geniuses” were collected: a physicist, mathematician, a spelling star, a writer, and others.  All participating geniuses took a traditional IQ test, for which the physicist scored highest.  But the IQ test we all know–logic puzzles and mathematics and geometry–tests to the physicists natural strengths and experience.  While the other participants scored lower on that test, they scored much higher in tests measuring other human capabilities.  In other words, genius is relative.  And a variety of tests can identify different types of genius.

Ever since I saw this show I have been fascinated with the idea of dimensions in intelligence.  I remember seeing a demonstration of a special type of intelligence on display at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 2004.  Before I played in the WSOP, I was often the best player in local games in San Jose, California.  But at that table in Vegas I was one of the worst.  And one of my opponents kept proving it to me.  He repeatedly announced my intent before I said anything.  (Incidentally, that was an excellent tactic to intimidate me.) While that unknown gentleman may very well have failed high school math, he was a savant with respect to human behavior.

I realized then that people’s real strengths are not obvious.  Indeed, uncovering them can be incredibly difficult.  We are accustomed to measuring intelligence with logic quizzes and breadth of vocabulary and wittiness.  But how does this account for my erstwhile poker opponent? How do we measure behavior prediction based on minute changes in posture and facial expression?  And how do we recognized those that quickly master new languages?  Or can readily understand emotional state in a meaningful and empathetic way?

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