Sure! But maybe there is a better reason for learning another language. Read more details below…
At the Annual AAAS Meeting of 2011, I attended a seminar on Bilingualism. During the introduction to the session, we were reminded that two questions about language were part of the Top 125 questions to answer in science: “Why are there critical periods for language learning?” and “What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?”
The basic take-away message from all the talks in this session was that bilinguals always have two languages active in their brains, but they have to choose one language when they speak. This “selection control” is an “executive control” function, which occurs in every brain. Executive Control is defined by a set of cognitive processes that rely on the frontal cortex; it controls tasks such as shifting attention, multi-tasking, and working memory. For an example of a task that uses executive control, say out loud the color of the ink in this figure.
The hesitation you had on the bottom row is called the “Stroop Effect” and indicates that your executive control had to work to get the right answer. Your brain had to suppress the part that wanted to read the words and instead focus on the ink color. This is the kind of task that bilinguals have to complete in their heads every time they speak. They probably don’t even know they are hesitating, or having to “repress” part of their brain, because it is occurring imperceptibly on the millisecond time scale.
The even more exciting finding was presented by Dr. Ellen Bialystok, who talked about how bilingualism affects the aging process.
First, let me explain that certain factors can protect against aging effects such as dementia. Some of those factors are known to be years of formal schooling, regular aerobic exercise, and cognitively stimulating hobbies. So, she tested whether bilingualism also protected against aging effects and found that they did! In two separate studies, there was a 4-5 year lag in the mean age that bilinguals acquired dementia compared to monolinguals.
Bio Careers readers should be thrilled about this for a few reasons. Not only do they have more formal schooling than most, but also they probably have cognitively stimulating hobbies (such as working in the lab during all their free time – just kidding!).
And, since the international population of PhDs and Postdocs is ever increasing, that means that most of the scientific population will remain cognitively aware and active longer than the general population.
So, if you are thinking of studying another language to be able to do your postdoc somewhere else, then go for it! This data should give you an even better reason to make a little time available for language lessons.
… And I guess it also explains why scientists never retire!