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

A second language builds cognitive potential, not just linguistic ability

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own