Foreign languages better for your brain – and your career

Published in Talkin’ Business, issue 3, June 2010, Maastricht. View the original article here.

Better at maths. Better at problem solving and critical thinking. More creative and flexible. How to gain all these intellectual perks in one go, you ask? Simple: speak a foreign language. A recent article in the US newspaper Chronicle of Higher Education has put the cognitive benefits of multilingualism back on the agenda. And it won’t hurt your career either, according to high-flying Maastricht University School of Business and Economics alum Hidde-Jan Lemstra.

Better use of your brain

Catherine Porter’sarticle in the Chronicle of 18 April reported that children who start to learn a foreign language early (i.e. between the ages of five and nine) later outperform their peers in all sorts of cognitive testing. Porter’s question: “Does foreign language study itself have an impact on brain physiology?” That is to say, if you speak a foreign language and I don’t, does your brain end up with a different structure than mine?

Maybe so. According to the article, research indicates that you will have higher brain density in your left interior parietal lobe, and because you’ll be better at discovering patterns, your brain will probably create and maintain more circuits. Simply put, if you are bilingual your brain will make better use of the neural structures involved in cognitive processing. In fact, this may even help you fight off ageing better – a recent Canadian study showed that the onset of dementia in bilingual adults may be delayed by up to four years.

‘English is not enough’

Your brain’s development, then, appears to be disadvantaged if you only speak one language. And if that one language is English – well. As Porter puts it, “English, while essential, is simply not enough”. The global status of English has seduced many native speakers into thinking they don’t need to bother with other languages. But this attitude will leave them lagging behind not just cognitively; there will be professional repercussions too. Hidde-Jan Lemstra, who graduated in 2005 with a SBE’s Bachelor’s in International Business, now works in London for Prudential, an international financial services group that manages €340 billion worth of assets. Lemstra is a senior consultant, responsible for recruiting new staff who will be fast-tracked up the company’s leadership ladder through the organisation’s ‘Momentum’ programme. “English is very important; without a strong command of English, you just won’t get by”, he says. “Having said that, for Prudential employees other foreign languages are very important as well. Because 70% of our business is in Asia, there’s a huge gap between managers who only have English skills and those who also speak the local language (e.g. Mandarin). With this extra knowledge, you can bridge so many cultural gaps. And if we look ahead 10 years or so, many more people will need to be able to speak these local (especially Asian) languages in order to be successful.”

‘It’s a liberating feeling’

Through language, we filter reality and structure the world around us. Because each language does this differently, understanding two or more languages will clearly be of use when it comes to understanding different perspectives and outlooks. “Bilingual people use multiple lenses to view the world”, explains Porter. “Few if any intellectual achievements open more doors in the mind, in the heart, and in the world than learning to understand and speak another language. And few produce a more profound or lasting satisfaction.”

Lemstra shares this view: “Without foreign languages, you feel a bit helpless. Knowledge of languages gives you a liberating feeling. If you already have the mindset of learning languages – which is typical for people from the Netherlands and other countries with a small language area – this has an important impact on your development as a person. It shapes who you are as a person, and how you develop in foreign situations.”

SBE walks the talk

So what, then, is SBE doing to ensure that its students get the full benefits of foreign language learning – and that the local, national and international labour markets benefit in turn from multilingual SBE alumni? To start with, the School is well known for its array of English-language programmes and its international staff and student bodies. All bachelor’s students are required to do a study period abroad, during which they can improve their foreign-language skills both in the classroom and in everyday situations. The SBE Student Council recently launched Intercambio, a cultural exchange programme where students can get together over a  cup of coffee to practise  each other’s languages. As the icing on the cake, SBE offers free language courses [no longer -Ed.] to all master’s students: not only  Dutch and English, but also Arabic, Chinese, Turkish and more.

“Being so well-equipped to express myself in English has really set me apart from graduates of other universities and Dutch taught-language programmes”, says Lemstra. “But knowledge of other languages shows recruiters that you’re willing to go that extra mile. I wasn’t all that interested in learning foreign languages during my studies, so I want to advise students now: if you get the chance, take it!”