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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager - OTE £60,000

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In 2014, they launched the worl...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Design Lead

£23958 - £29282 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Recruitment Genius: HR Recruitment Advisor

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of children's ser...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest  

Even when refugees do make it to British soil, they are treated appallingly

Maya Goodfellow
 

Daily catch-up: immigration past and present, in Europe and in America

John Rentoul
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones