Learning Languages and Mental Health

If you read the news yesterday you may have seen some distressing headlines that suggest learning languages causes mental health problems. GCSE students are being excused from language lessons ‘because language lessons apparently damage their mental health.’ Top prize for bigotry and linguaphobia goes to the Daily Mail for the following headline:

‘Doctors give pupils sick notes to duck French and German lessons amid fears the stress of learning a second language is harming their mental health’

The article goes on to explain exactly how learning languages will harm your child’s mental health, referring several times to ‘the mental health threat’ posed by language lessons, and saying that these sick notes ‘often mention a range of stresses, not just languages.’ Ouch. 

Not far behind with second prize is the Telegraph:

Children find foreign languages so stressful they are being signed off by a GP, headteachers told

Apparently children ‘must be excused from learning languages because it is causing them extreme anxiety.’

Both papers are at pains to point out that languages are irrelevant, pointless, and not part of our culture. There is also some suggestion that languages are a waste of money, since they adversely affect children’s mental health, meaning that mental health services will be strained.

STOP WHERE YOU ARE.

Learning languages does not pose a ‘mental health threat’. Yes, our teenagers are increasingly stressed about GCSEs and social media is causing more anxiety than ever for our young people, but languages are the scapegoat here, and not the root of this growing problem.

There is plenty of scientific evidence that, far from ‘harming’ mental health, learning languages has a positive and beneficial effect on mental health and indeed on long-term physical brain health. If the NHS prescribed learning languages, it could save billions on dementia care and depression medication.

Linguicide?

Languages are an easy target because, as my first The Language Revolution Podcast guest Thomas Bak points out, we routinely undervalue languages in the UK and indeed the census promotes a monoglottist view of the state of languages in this country. If we continue to phrase the census question on languages as ‘What is your main language?’ we imply that only one ‘national’ language has importance, and this smacks of the kind of linguistic stamping out, or linguicide, that has been seen in extremis in Australia, where of the 250 native languages that existed before colonial settlers arrived, only 13 are not highly endangered today.

I read with interest the studies of Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann in Australia, as reported by Alex Rawlings in this BBC Future article. Zuckermann has shown that since reintroducing ancestral languages to indigenous people who were subject to the imperialistic policies of the Australian government in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries (namely separating children from their families and forcing them to speak English instead of their mother tongue), a clear trend has emerged of improved mental and physical wellbeing. Alcholism, addiction, diabetes, depression and suicide rates have fallen amongst Aboriginal people whose languages are resurrected through Zuckermann’s work, suggesting that far from causing mental health problems, languages are a source of improved mental wellbeing. The studies are ongoing and I await further results with interest.

Map of Australia with red pin

Bilingual myths

Through my work with Babel Babies I regularly hear from families who have been advised by well-meaning (I hope) professionals to stop speaking their own language to their own children, in order to improve their child’s chances of learning English or to help improve a suspected speech delay that they claim is caused by bilingualism. This is a totally incorrect and false piece of advice, and not only proven to have the opposite effect (as Thomas Bak explains in Episode 3 of The Language Revolution Podcast) but I suspect it also causes untold psychological trauma.

Mother interacting with her child playing ‘Peepo’

Imagine if your mother suddenly stopped singing, reading stories and saying all the comforting and loving words of your first few months or years, and fell silent or became emotionally distant all of a sudden because she felt unable to speak in her own language of mothering, your shared language, and was only ‘allowed’ to speak in faltering English to you. Awful!

I was moved to tears at the Languages Symposium in November 2017 by Dina Mehmedbegovic’s stories about teenagers in London who were cut off from their ‘home’ language and felt that it was a sin to speak it, or even to think of an answer in school in a language other than English. The long-term damage this monoglot culture is causing to our young people, to our families and communities, is breathtakingly sad.

And surely it is easy to change this by stating the scientific facts about bilingualism CORRECTLY:

1 – You will NOT IMPROVE your child’s English outcomes by switching to only speaking English at home;

2 – You will merely SLOW DOWN their progress with English, and SPEED UP the deterioration and eventual loss of their first language, disconnecting them from their relatives and history at the same time (and leading to long-term negative effects, as Zuckermann’s research shows). 

3 – Children will learn English through school and the environment, and by continuing to speak your family’s language(s) at home you IMPROVE their acquisition of English too. The two languages do NOT COMPETE with each other, they support each other, as Thomas and I discuss in the first episode of the podcast.

Fear of Languages

So why are we so darn afraid of languages in the UK, to the point that it is reportedly causing ‘damage to mental health’ in our children to study languages at school?

I believe quite strongly that our whole approach to language education needs to change. There are gaping wounds to heal in the adults who went through school hating language lessons, fearful of appearing stupid, who in order to protect their self esteem now tell me they are ‘rubbish at languages’ rather than that ‘languages were not taught in a way that felt natural to me’. If we look at the natural language acquisition process, we don’t sit babies down with a verb table and get them conjugating or parsing, nor do we ask them to repeat lists of vocabulary or expect them to speak in full sentences just because we have read the same story to them every night for a week.

If we taught science with the same preposterous expectations, the science curriculum would be:

Early Years/KS1 – no mention of science, but a playground full of children whose parents are biochemists, vets, doctors, astrophysicists, engineers etc. One or two parents may come into class to read a story about saving lives or space exploration. Teachers, keep it light – it’s not of central importance.

KS2 – up to one hour per week (unless there is something more important happening like an assembly) with a different teacher (preferably a science graduate if you can find one because only experts can teach this) where children repeat five or six elements of the periodic table, colour in some pictures of rockets, or label a diagram of a plant. Also a ‘science week’ to be organised for year six pupils in the summer term, after all the important (actual) work has been covered in primary school.

KS3 – disregard primary curriculum. Children choose a specialist science and learn it up to a high standard ready for examinations.

Teaching notes – Drop in the odd comment about ‘doing your bit’ for the economy (heaven knows, we need scientists in order to to thrive as a country!) and also point out at careers fairs and parents’ evenings how useful science is for long-term development, getting jobs, appearing ‘well-rounded’ and you could go as far as saying that it’s fun even if you don’t really believe that it is. That’s okay because adults know that science is the hardest subject, with unfair exams, but we need our children to value it anyway or the country is doomed.

Change the languages curriculum

Yes, I am being facetious here, but do we really expect our children to want to learn languages, to feel equipped with the skills and metacognitive awareness to explore the vast and colourful subject of languages and feel in control of doing it, and to enjoy the process of learning languages (not just hope the outcome is useful in adulthood) under the current floundering system? Languages are central to our understanding of humankind, and a central part of being human. But ‘learning languages’ at school is far removed from that reality.

A tough-nut pupil in a Glasgow secondary school summed it up for me when he asked, after our third lesson on ER verbs where we’d been making up raps about the verb tables and partaking in all sorts of linguistic acrobatics to make it palatable, ‘Miss, how are we doing verbs in French when we dinnae use them in English?’ In case you don’t know, how roughly equates to WHY THE HECK, and he’s right! He was completely unaware that English is a language with all the same grammatical intricacies and systems, historical vocabulary sources and overlapping sound systems as French, or that we actually SPOKE FRENCH in the UK for 600 years. The disconnect between English being a language and ‘other languages’ is astounding and extremely damaging. In class his friends included children who spoke additional languages, but as the curriculum ignored these it didn’t help much because languages your friends speak and languages in school are not the same thing.

Let’s start by putting languages back at the heart of our human experience, our history and knowledge of how we have got to where we are today as an ever-evolving species, and let’s educate our children from birth or as soon as possible about how they fit into the linguistic landscape in the UK. No, they may not speak other languages at home or ever visit France, or even venture further than McDonalds on the high street, but those are not the only reasons to learn another language. 

Health benefits of languages

Let’s also educate ourselves about and continue researching the enormous health benefits, both physical and mental, of learning languages. Neuroscientists are only just beginning to understand the incredible effects of languages on our brain. Knowing more than one language doubles your cognitive recovery rate within a year of suffering a stroke, and buys you another four or five years of symptom-free life if you suffer from Alzheimer’s. The best drugs on the market don’t even come close! As Thomas Bak says in our interviews, monolingualism is an epidemic that speeds up the ageing process, but it is reversible if we learn languages.

Furthermore, a 2018 study proved that singing lullabies and songs from around the world in mother-and-baby groups decreases the symptoms of post-natal depression by 35% within six weeks of giving birth, as reported by the BBC. This was a much faster recovery rate than the mothers taking part in creative play sessions or receiving their usual care and support, medication, or mindfulness interventions.

If there is a prejudice against learning languages in the UK, we need to take action now to enlighten people. Languages are not the cause of the problem, and they might just be the cure.

Babel Babies multilingual music sessions where parents sing languages
with their babies and children

The Language Revolution Podcast: Episode 2

In this episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, I ask Thomas Bak about the perfect age to learn languages. Is it ever too late to start? Can you lose your childhood accent? How does learning languages improve your brain health? Should the NHS prescribe languages to older adults to delay dementia? What if you already have dementia, is it too late to learn languages then?

Let’s talk about talking!

What can you expect from this episode?

We might assume that as we get older it becomes ever increasingly difficult to learn languages. Perhaps you have heard that the ‘critical window’ for learning languages closes when we are teenagers, or even earlier. Here we examine different aspects of language acquisition (sounds, grammar and vocabulary) individually, and look at whether there is an ideal age to learn each. To find out how we learn, process and store languages, listen to episode one first.

We go on to discuss the health benefits of learning languages in later life. Did you know that being bilingual doubles your chances of a full cognitive recovery within the first year after suffering a stroke? Pretty amazing stats. We also discuss how the process of learning languages can delay dementia symptoms and improve brain health as part of a healthy retirement lifestyle. If you are thinking about taking up languages when you retire, this could be just the motivation you are seeking!

Ever wondered whether doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles, or learning a musical instrument, has the same benefits as learning a language? Is it worth the effort of trying to remember some basic Italian when you are tired and finding it difficult? Take inspiration from Joseph Conrad, Mary Hobson and Samuel Beckett, or closer to home, look to your own children and grandchildren and set a good example of how grown-ups can learn languages too.

Listen to episode two of The Language Revolution Podcast now:

The Language Revolution Podcast logo
The Language Revolution Podcast: Episode 2

The Language Revolution Podcast: How we learn languages

Do you say ‘The Language Revolution Podcast’ or podcarst? I have no idea which one is more ‘me’ and so I sought advice about how we learn to speak from neuroscientist Thomas Bak, from Edinburgh University.

Let’s talk about talking!

This the first episode of The Language Revolution podcast, and part one of a three-part series where we discuss everything about languages from how we learn new words, to linguistic exogamy!

Is it normal to speak more than one language? Will we feel confused? Can our brains cope with storing more than one language, and if so, how do they manage to juggle them?

As a languages teacher and co-founder of Babel Babies, I am fascinated by how something as simple as speaking has got people into such a pickle. The UK has a rich multilingual tapestry, woven with our 14 indigenous languages (go on, have a go at naming them in the comments below!) and many more language threads that have come to our shores with people from all over the world, and yet we have a reputation of shying away from learning new languages.

I think it’s high-time we faced the issues we have about learning languages head-on and talked about where our feelings of fear, embarrassment, and even resentment at the suggestion that English speakers should learn a new language come from.

It’s time for a language revolution, n’est-ce pas?

Listen to episode one of The Language Revolution Podcast now:

The Language Revolution logo
The Language Revolution Podcast: Episode 1