Andy Martin: Well - do you want a better brain or not?

A second language builds cognitive potential, not just linguistic ability

Share
Related Topics

John Stuart Mill, who picked up Ancient Greek and Latin around the age of five (before writing On Liberty), would have been right behind Michael Gove bringing back languages – ancient or modern – for seven-year-olds. But hold it right there, sceptics will say. Isn't this the same John Stuart Mill who admitted to having a nervous breakdown around the age of 20? Doesn't this prove that our delicate English monolingual brains really can't take too much foreign gibberish? That by learning other languages, we risk a descent into madness? The cure – as Mill himself suggested – is more Wordsworth. Stick to English.

There is a more caring version of the sceptical case. Let the high-flyers do languages. Languages are a luxury – they are the turbo-drive, an optional add-on, a fashion accessory. Meanwhile, the hoi polloi, the masses, should really stick to English and maths. They will be happier that way. It's less of a strain for them.

All hogwash, of course. And condescending hogwash at that. The argument is over and the verdict is in. The fact of the matter is that learning languages builds bigger and better brains. Well, do you want a better brain or not?

Personally, I got into languages under the nefarious influence of wine, women and song (the woman was Brigitte Bardot and the song was "Je t'aime, moi non plus"). And I would add, Je ne regrette rien. But now neuroscientists have shown that learning a second language enhances brain power across the board. You can actually see the synapses going forth and multiplying.

A second language builds cognitive potential, not just linguistic ability. It's like a workout at the gym for your mind. So, for example, if you want to get better at long division, you'd do well to learn Spanish. The brain is like a rainforest: an intellectual eco-system in which all the different faculties are interdependent. Adding a soupçon of parlez-vous enriches the parts that maths alone cannot reach.

Recently, I saw a bunch of kids aged nine and 10 (from St Faiths School in Cambridge) learn Ancient Greek in a day. Well enough, at any rate, to give a dramatic presentation of an epic poem several thousand years old by 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It was "Arate pulas" – "Lift up the gates" (which became Psalm 24). It was like that Tom and Jerry cartoon in which Tom becomes a concert pianist in three easy lessons: one note, two notes, then a whole Rachmaninov piano concerto. Lifting up the gates summed it up neatly. Any language opens a portal into a parallel world. Suddenly, these kids really were conquering heroes.

Dumber and dumber or smarter and polylingual? You choose.

Andy Martin's latest book is 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus'. He teaches at Cambridge University

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration Engineer

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: These refrigeration specialists...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Logistics and Supply Chain

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an operational role and...

Recruitment Genius: CNC Sheet Metal Worker / Fabricator

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working within the workshop of ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st / 2nd Line IT Support Engineer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist high tech compa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The strangely parallel lives of Oliver Letwin and Ed Miliband

Matthew Norman
A Cafe Nero coffee store in central London  

Caffè Nero’s craven cowardice over badger culling has made me tear up my loyalty card

Jane Merrick
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral