Although there is still much more about our brains that we don’t know than we do, what those who study our noggins have discovered is that learning a language is an activity that pays relatively high dividends.
For most of us, because of the complexity, learning a new language is not easy. It takes time, thought, effort, recall, and lots of practice. It’s kind of like aerobics, resistance training, and yoga all combined into a well-rounded mental workout. And like physical exercise, the results are proportional to the effort we invest. When we learn a language, brain scans are showing the firing of neural synapses actually help expand the plasma membrane where we need it most — memory and recall.
As an added bonus, brain heads are also detecting a host of extra side benefits from learning a language, such as an increase in creativity, flexibility, openness, focus, and an improvement in general cognitive skills.
Having been in rural China (on and off) for a few years means that getting to know the basics of Mandarin not only makes life a bit easier but also a tad more enriching. Fortunately, or unfortunately, most business communication is conducted in English, giving me an excuse and an out. Still, I’ve poked around at several different learning methods, from podcasts, to classes, to a book and CD — each one improving my rationalization skills for avoiding the mental workouts. I even tried using a stone of the rosetta variety, but nothing was sparking the neuron stimulation I was looking for. Then I found Fluenz.
While I’m still well entrenched in the beginner stage, it’s kind of thrilling to be able to direct a taxi and order food without pointing to everything like a dumbo. After a few years, that’s not saying much. Anyone with normal intelligence would be a lot further along. But the fact that I’ve found something that is not a chore is thanks to the structure and format of this online and downloadable course.
The co-founder, Sonia Gil, has developed a method that actually makes learning the language engaging. The premise of Fluenz is that each language requires a slightly different approach, at least for English speakers. I can’t speak for their other courses, but the Mandarin version consists of three levels, each one with more than a couple dozen sessions. Each session is broken down into many, aptly named, workouts. The exercises include a short dialogue with and without translation, explanations, matching words with photos and sentence structures, practice writing what you hear with the correct inflection (pinyin), and more. The sessions are pleasantly mixed and diverse enough that the learning process is stimulating. Additionally, the iPad and iPhone versions are appealingly interactive. The course also includes digital flashcards in a variety of formats, mobile podcast practice, and a short dictionary.
My rationalization skills for avoiding study time are still well-honed. Many days spent justifying why not studying Mandarin is in my best interest has made me an expert at fooling myself. The one phrase I’ve got memorized for the Chinese people who try to speak to me is “tīng bù dõng” which in essence means, I’m clueless about your language, so it’s fruitless to talk with me. But because I’m an oddball in their world, the locals are curious. They want to converse. By not trying, tiny grains of richness evaporate, so it doesn’t seem right that I deny them, or myself, those scattered yet potentially wholesome morsels.
With luck, if the gray matter is not too thin and I can somehow overpower the phony excuses, I’ll eek out of baby phase at some point and into toddlerhood. If so, I’m hoping to eventually savor some of those residual benefits. I won’t hold my breath, but if there’s a chance, it will be thanks to the Fluenz course.
And if I can power through, I just may pick up another Fluenz language and chalk it up to encephalonic health care. Not being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the effort. Daily mental calisthenics with so many perks could be a worthy commitment.