I’ve always been interested in how the human mind changes. I took a class in college that talked about how the brain had changed at different points in society; people’s minds changed with the invention of the written word, and many people think that computers are changing the way we think right now.
But you don’t have to wait until some watershed moment in human history to change your thinking. Learning a language has a very similar effect on changing the way that you think.
This is one of the cool, unintended consequences of learning another language. There are the obvious benefits to learning another language like being able to talk to people from different cultures, watch foreign movies and read foreign books, but the advantages go far beyond that.
But what do I mean when I say that it has the power to change how you think? Well for one, learning Japanese can make you better at math.
Japanese & Math
It’s pretty well known that Japanese students (and Asian students in general) have ran circles around the rest of the world for years and years in standardized math tests. Their scores dwarf those of most Western students.
People have offered up many explanations: societal expectations are more demanding of students, the school systems are better, the students have a better work ethic.
But one explanation is more interesting to me than any other. Some people think that the reason that Asians have an edge in math is because of language, and how that lets people think differently about math and numbers.
The theory goes like this: the Chinese numeral system (which is used in Japan and across Asia) lends itself to learning numbers quickly and being able to work with them easily.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about this theory at length in his book Outliers. He explains how the advantages of the Chinese numeral system start early and snowball quickly:
That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don’t reach forty until they’re five: by the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.
Learning Japanese can help you better understand that system and give you some insight on how native speakers think of numbers and mathematics.
But it’s not just your perception of mathematics that can change. After I started learning Japanese, my outlook on language in general changed greatly.
Using Language To Learn About Language
Learning Japanese (or any foreign language, really) can help you think about language itself in a really different way.
To be honest, I hadn’t really thought much about the structure of language before I started studying Japanese. Beyond a lesson or two from Schoolhouse Rock, I hadn’t really thought much about parts of speech and things like that.
When you’re a native speaker of a language, the mechanics of your language don’t really matter as much. Things either sound right, or they don’t, and you can’t always explain why.
But studying another language, especially one like Japanese that’s so different in a lot of ways from my native language, helped me understand language as a whole a lot better.
A lot of languages have concepts and ideas that are unique to that specific language. When I was writing our guide to Japanese onomatopoeia, I learned a lot about concepts and mechanics that exist in Japanese, but not English.
You don’t always realize the structure and limitations of a language until you’re working outside of it.
And It Goes On And On…
There are plenty of other ways learning another language can change your thinking that I haven’t listed here.
Just earlier this month, The New York Times published an article called The Benefits of Bilingualism, which talks about studies of bilingual people and how their thinking is different from people who know just one language.
in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.
The ways you can change your mind by learning another language are plenty. My question is: have you learned anything new from learning Japanese (or another language)?