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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Why you shouldn’t ignore the Duolingo bird

If you are a language enthusiast, chances are you’ve already received those Duolingo notifications reminding you that it was time for your daily lesson. Let’s be honest, we’ve all already ignored the Duolingo bird at least once – or a lot more… It is only natural to lack motivation from time to time when you are essentially rewiring your brain to understand a whole new language. But, fear not, if you haven’t already taken your Japanese (or whatever language you want to learn) lesson today, this might give you some motivation to finally click on that notification.  


You might have started to learn a language to have more chances to find a job, to visit a new country, or simply to have the personal satisfaction of seeing yourself becoming more and more fluent, even understanding snippets of conversations abroad (the ultimate reward for any language learner). The social factor might have also been non-negligible: meeting and opening up conversations with new people can be a considerable motivator to learn a new language. Even during lockdown, when the world seemed to stop, a surge in interest for languages was observed, with apps such as Duolingo, Memrise, or iTalki reporting an increase in users and sales. Real proof that even when social distancing and traveling restrictions hit, people were searching for ways to connect with each other.


Yet, this surge of motivation for language learning during the lockdown seems to have slowly faded into the background, and one may now well wonder: in 2023, is it still relevant to devote so much free time and effort to learning a new language? After all, we are indeed witnessing the rise of AI and translation tools, threatening certain jobs, such as those of translators or interpreters. However, while the quality of these translation programs is increasing, they can still provide some inaccurate or completely wrong translations, which is why human expertise remains necessary.


It could also be argued that, because English is now fully recognised as the lingua franca worldwide, learning another foreign language is somewhat pointless, as everyone understands English anyway. However, not everyone actually speaks English (in 2023, out of around 8 billion people, 1.5 billion speak English natively or as a second language). And if learning English is definitely useful, it should not overshadow the value of other languages. Don’t forget the spark in someone’s eyes when they realise that you can speak their native language (for instance, speaking (even a somewhat broken) Dutch at de Gemeente will make employees very happy). I cannot say it better than Nelson Mandela already did: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”


Moreover, the reasons to learn a new language are not limited to those mentioned earlier. There are in fact many other benefits to be gained from learning a foreign language. Finding precise data or scientific consensus on the benefits of language learning is not always easy, because it’s such a complex subject with a variety of factors (such as the level of fluency, the frequency of use of the foreign language, and so on). Yet, multiple studies have found cognitive benefits of language learning. Better memory, visual-spatial skills, and increased creativity (according to this study): just a few examples of the health benefits of learning a foreign language. Researchers have also started to study with interest the effects of bilingualism or multilingualism. For instance, it has been found that bilinguals might have more gray matter than monolinguals, and therefore a healthier brain. A 2020 study has also shown that bilingualism may be “a neuroprotective factor against dementia and could be considered a factor in cognitive reserve”.


Finally, by learning a new language, you open yourself to a new culture with its whole new sets of traditions, celebrations, dishes and cultural identity. This is especially true if you decide to travel to a country where your target language is spoken, where you can fully experience all sorts of cultural shocks. Chances are that these enriching experiences will influence the way you see your own culture, and they might even give you a new perspective on life. For instance, if you decide to learn Japanese, you might start watching Japanese movies, anime or start reading manga. It might seem like a simple exercise to improve your listening or reading skills, but by doing so, you are actually immersing yourself into Japanese art (cinematography for example), which will then give you great insight into Japanese culture and how different it is from your own culture. You will end up understanding other customs better, which can lead you to reflect on your own way of living.

Historically speaking, learning multiple languages could be seen as detrimental: it sometimes had a negative social connotation, or would supposedly cause children to fall behind in school and hinder their intellectual development. However, we now have all the knowledge necessary to understand the benefits of language learning. Whether it is for your personal satisfaction, social or even health benefits, anyone can find the right motivation to take an interest in a new language. So next time the little green bird pops up on your screen, you might want to click on that notification and give it a few minutes of your attention. 

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