Cognition, Opportunity, and Learning a New Language

English has a wider global reach than any language in history.

It has become the world’s lingua franca in a range of domains, including business, politics, science, technology, academia, and entertainment.

On top of that, real-time language translation technology continues to get faster and more accurate.

Why, then, would a native English speaker in today’s world want or need to learn another language?

There are some obvious practical reasons to learn a new language, such as career advancement, higher income, or increased employability.

There are other appealing reasons to learn a new language, too. It will make it easier to relate to and communicate with people in another culture or country, it will make it easier and more enjoyable to travel certain places, you can expand your personal and professional networks, and it’s just fun and interesting.

But beyond the readily apparent practical and personal applications of knowing a second language, learning a new language can improve our thinking and our ability to recognize opportunity.

As Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life.”

Structural brain changes

Yes, studying a foreign language can actually make your brain bigger.

A study of interpreter conscripts at the Swedish Armed Forces Intelligence and Security Centre found that three months of intense foreign language training increased participants’ cortical thickness and hippocampal volume.[1]

In fact, the intense learning of many different types of subjects can create structural changes in specific areas of the brain.[2]

This neuroplasticity is the basis for bilinguals outperforming monolinguals in many areas of cognitive function.

Learning a new language not only takes advantage of the brain’s plasticity to beneficially reorganize brain structures, but also increases the brain’s capacity for plasticity in general.

Improved executive functioning

Executive functions are cognitive processes that allow us to do such things as control attention, tune out distractions, inhibit our impulses, manage working memory, and switch focus between concepts and tasks.

When we are bilingual, both language systems are active in our brain regardless of which language we may be using at the time.

Executive control mechanisms enable the bilingual person to resolve conflicts between the two language systems and choose appropriately from the target language. This internal conflict resolution system is strengthened with continuous repetition, and the benefits extend to both language and nonlanguage tasks.[3]

Improved executive functioning allows us to manage complex tasks, filter distractions, and stay focused on our goals.

Enhanced creativity

There is evidence that creativity relies heavily on executive functions.

Creative people need to focus on tasks, be receptive to incoming information, switch focus, and filter distractions. Since of all of these relate to executive functions – and since learning a new language improves executive functioning – bilingualism may make us more creative.

Another link between bilingualism and creativity could be that bilinguals are frequently operating in different cultural or linguistic environments that enrich their associations and conceptual systems.[4]

This combination of improved executive functioning and enriched conceptual systems may allow bilinguals to identify more complex affordances and take more exploratory actions that lead to creative ideas and products.[5]

Better decisions

Can learning a foreign language help us make better decisions?

Our decisions are significantly impacted by cognitive biases, and there is evidence that learning another language can help reduce these decision-making biases.

But to fully benefit from this effect, we may need to actually think the problem through in the foreign language before coming to a decision.

We process a foreign language less automatically than our native language, and this may provide a distancing mechanism that allows to move from intuitive to deliberate thinking. The reduced fluency in our non-native language can therefore lead to more analytical thinking and more systematic decisions.[6]

Part of this distancing effect may be that the foreign language is less rooted in our emotion system than our native language.

While we may fully understand them, when we hear certain types of words in a foreign language – such as profanity, insults, reprimands, terms of endearment, or marketing messages – we react to them less emotionally than we do when we hear them in our own language.[7]

When we use a foreign language to make a decision, we mitigate the impact of emotion, and therefore reduce bias.

Emotions are subject to bias, and can negatively influence how we evaluate opportunity or make important life choices. If we can eliminate or reduce bias by thinking in a different language, we will make better decisions.

Heightened problem-solving ability

Just as learning a new language can make us more creative and improve our decisions, evidence suggests it can make us better problem solvers, too.

An early study showed that bilingual children perform better on tasks – verbal or nonverbal – that require mental flexibility and concept formation. A subsequent study revealed that bilingually balanced children (those with similar proficiency in both languages) showed stronger analogical reasoning ability than dominant bilinguals (those who are much stronger in one language).[8]

A more recent study found that bilingual students significantly outperformed their monolingual peers when completing a set of standardized cognitive ability sub-tests.

This could be partly explained by the increased cognitive control developed in bilingual children transferring to other areas of cognition, making problem-solving that relies on attentional control easier for bilinguals than monolinguals.[9]

The lead author of that study, Dr. Fraser Lauchlan, said that the bilingual students “had an aptitude for selective attention – the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not – which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”

It’s possible, too, that when we start to understand the components and structure of an entirely new language, we just start to look at things a little differently. This could cause us to approach problems from a fresh perspective and generate more novel alternative solutions.

Improved communication skills

Learning a second language will certainly make you a better communicator in that language, but it will improve your English communication skills, too.

Author and journalist Geoffrey Willans once said, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”

Specifically, bilingualism can be correlated to greater metalinguistic awareness, which is our ability to reflect on the nature of language.

We apply metalinguistic skills to verbal communication – oral or written – to craft and analyze messages. If we improve our metalinguistic skills, we become better writers, readers, speakers, and listeners.

Most studies that have investigated the effects of bilingualism on metalinguistic development found that bilinguals demonstrate better metalinguistic awareness than monolinguals.[10]

Executive control (specifically, attention and monitoring processes) and language analysis are both involved in metalinguistic awareness. In tasks involving grammatical judgment and verbal fluency, superior executive control allows bilinguals to maintain an advantage over their monolingual peers.[11]

Greater metalinguistic awareness makes us better communicators, which makes us more receptive to others, and makes others more receptive to us.

Expansion of opportunity

Learning a new language can expand our opportunities in both obvious and subtle ways.

Psycholinguist Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

Speaking another language could open the door for additional career advancement. It will almost certainly expand your available job opportunities. And in some cases, there are salary or wage differentials that favor bilinguals over monolinguals.

Being bilingual also expands our opportunities for cultural exchange, travel, and personal and professional networking.

The overall improved metalinguistic skills that come with bilingualism will not only extend our networking reach, but could also make us more effective and persuasive communicators.

But it’s the underlying cognitive gains from learning a new language that might best boost our ability to recognize and evaluate opportunities unrelated to our new language skills.

Enhanced executive functioning, focus, and creativity could all contribute to a stronger sense of the type of “entrepreneurial alertness” needed for opportunity recognition.

Further, by reducing decision bias, making better decisions, and improving our attentional control and analogical reasoning, we will be better prepared to evaluate the new opportunities we encounter.

Choosing a new language to learn

If are motivated to reap the benefits of learning a foreign language, which one should you start with?

Your decision might be driven by places you’d like to visit – or maybe even live – sometime in the future. Or there might be occupational advantages to learning a specific language depending on your field.

There may be a language you want to learn because of family heritage, or there simply might be a particular language that has always intrigued you.

Or maybe you just want to get your feet wet by first learning a second language that’s not too challenging. For example, an English speaker would need a lot more hours of study and practice to learn Arabic than a much easier language like Norwegian.

Germanic and Romance languages tend to be the easiest for native English speakers to learn.

According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)– depending on factors like natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and actual time spent learning – new language learners can expect to achieve “professional working proficiency” in the following languages in 24-30 weeks:

  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Bear in mind that those FSI time-to-learn estimates involve a good deal of focused classroom study. Your mileage will unequivocally vary.

You could also choose a constructed auxiliary language like Esperanto. It was intentionally designed to be flexible and easy to learn, so it’s a good gateway to foreign language learning.

Whichever language you choose, there are plenty of free online  courses and resources, so there are really no barriers to getting started.


1. Johann Martensson et al., “Growth of Language-related Brain Areas after Foreign Language Learning,” NeuroImage 63, no. 1 (2012): 243.

2. Bogdan Draganski et al., “Temporal and Spatial Dynamics of Brain Structure Changes during Extensive Learning,” The Journal of Neuroscience 26, no. 23 (2006): 6314.

3. Ellen Bialystok and Fergus I. M. Craik, “Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 19, no. 1 (2010): 22.

4. Marloes Van Dijk et al., “Bilingualism and Creativity: Towards a Situated Cognition Approach,” Journal of Creative Behavior (2018): 7.

5. Ibid, 9.

6. Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, Sun Gyu An, “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” Psychological Science 23, no. 6 (2012): 1.

7. Ibid, 1.

8. Fraser Lauchlan, Marinelli Parisi, and Roberta Fadda, “Bilingualism in Sardinia and Scotland: Exploring the Cognitive Benefits of Speaking a ‘Minority’ Language,” International Journal of Bilingualism 17, no. 1 (2012): 45.

9. Ibid, 51-53.

10. Olusola O. Adescope et al., “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism,” Review of Educational Research 80, no. 2 (2010): 210.

11. Deanna C. Friesen and Ellen Bialystok, “Metalinguistic Ability in Bilingual Children: The Role of Executive Control,” Journal of Applied Psycholinguistics 12, no. 3 (2012): 54.

Scroll to Top