Speak another language

When you try to speak another language as an adult, it’s a truly challenging and beneficial task for your brain, research shows.

Have your travels taken you to a foreign country where you were unable to communicate with others because you didn’t know their language? Yet even the thought of quickly learning conversational phrases seemed a daunting if not an impossible task?

For those of us who are monolingual (meaning we speak just one language), the attempt to speak another language has been shown by research to be a truly challenging task. Our embarrassment at what we will sound like stops us cold from trying out new words and phrases, so we often don’t. Or we adapt by limiting our travel choices to hotels, destinations and experiences where our native tongue is spoken. This travel approach robs us of the deep, meaningful, novel and invigorating experiences available through connection with authentic culture and native people – aspects of travel most people crave.

Take heart, as what I am about to share will hopefully increase your motivation to speak another language or at least learn a bit of language for your future travel destinations.

Neuroscience has shown us many ways that travel is good for your health and your brain. Benefits include novelty, lower stress levels, diminished risk of heart disease, stroke and depression, satisfying the human need to explore and discover new things, engaging in unique and interesting cultures, meeting new people, and increased cognitive functions such as problem-solving and memory.

New research supports that even trying to learn a new language can have an immediate, positive impact on mental agility, the process of concentrating on certain sounds and switching our attention to filter relevant information. Strong mental agility plays out in daily life in many ways: multitasking, moving easily between conversations, handling interruptions, noticing a dangerous situation in your environment.

Mental agility improves focus, productivity and being able to keep our cool. It is one of the first functions to decline as we age – meaning from midlife onward, and it is one of the most noticeable early deficits of dementia and Alzheimer’s. After only one week of learning to speak another language, 5 hours total in fact, study participants demonstrated greater attention and mental agility and maintained that ability for up to 9 months.

If we speak only one language, exposure to a new language also heightens our social skills. We tune in better to others, we are able to consider another’s perspective more easily, and most importantly we are able to make the human to human connections vital to enriching our own and others life experiences. Language is one of the core wired-at-birth brain networks that must be maintained across the lifespan to keep our brains healthy and resilient.

In addition, the brain network associated with caring for others is as vital to survival as breathing, and that is what we tap by making meaningful connections with people and novel experiences. Learning languages tunes us into the sounds, vocabulary and meaning of communication. Monolingual babies process the sounds of only their own language, but bilingual babies process many more sounds, tuning into whatever languages they hear from caregivers, accessing a much larger swath of brain networks.

A healthy brain throughout life means keeping multiple brain networks intact and working at their peak. So, if you want to speak another language, keep in mind the following for your next travel adventure…

  1. Pick up a dictionary in the language of your destination and browse through it.
  2. Listen to a youtube.com video or podcast in the local language to hear what it sounds like. This awakens your brain to new sounds.
  3. Take a cooking class in a foreign language, pointing to each item and learn how to say what it is in the local language. Babies learn language by following voice, hand and eye movements.
  4. Listen to local news on TV or radio and try to figure out what they are saying.
  5. Take a language class.
  6. Try reading a child’s book in the local language.
  7. Learn the basic phrases in your new language, such as “please”,“thank you”, “where is the toilet”  “how much does this cost?”  Then use these phrases every day.
  8. Learn how to say the all important “Sorry, I don’t speak ­­_______ (fill in the blank with Italian, French, German, Spanish, Turkish, etc.)
  9. Learn how to say, “How do you say _________(point to or reference whatever you want to ask or say)” in the local language.Repeat the word out loud several times. Then say it whenever you are curious about how to say something.
  10. Don’t be shy to ask locals how to say any phrase you think you might need, and then try saying it. It doesn’t matter if your pronunciation or verbs are correct.  Practice with your travel partners and locals on the street.  Locals love becoming your coach/teacher and you will make fast friends this way.
  11. Create notes each morning for 3-5 phrases you will need for that day, and practice saying them to strangers. Practice some more until they roll off your tongue.  People might even think you know the language and respond in kind!!  Then say #8.
  12. Leave your comfort zone and reach out to others with a warm and friendly smile.
  13. Remember, what matters is that you are connecting to the hearts, minds and spirits of those around you who will enrich your world in ways you have only begun to realize.
  14. Have fun and please, don’t take yourself too seriously!


Joan holds an MBA and Graduate Certificate in Interpersonal Neurobiology. She has 25 years’ experience in consulting and the creation of programs for major global corporations. A former Managing Partner of an international consulting firm, Joan then founded The Alliance Collaborative specializing in global partnership management. After years researching the lifestyle/dementia link following her mother Sally’s dementia diagnosis, Joan founded Lifestyle Rewired in 2014.

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