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Mental benefits of learning French depend on using it in real life

The language has been shown to reduce cognitive decline and keep loneliness at bay – but only if you’re prepared to move beyond simply listening

Bilingual people scored better in a study released by Alzheimer’s Research in 2017 Pic: BearFotos / Shutterstock

Pushing yourself to learn a language could yield a host of additional side benefits – as long as you put it into practice in day-to-day life.

As well as enabling us to get on the phone and sort out an internet problem, or buy exactly the right items from a hardware store, acquiring proficiency in French could keep us fitter and happier in ways we may not realise.

Studies have shown that regularly speaking two or more languages may reduce our susceptibility to mental health problems, and could even make us less likely to succumb to cognitive decline and dementia.

So when we are stressing over our French homework, or wondering exactly how to conjugate a verb, it is worth remembering that as well as improving our communication, we are also doing our brains a favour.

Active brains

“Learning another language has been proven to keep your brain more active,” says Aditi Lahiri, professor of linguistics and fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.

“As well as the benefits that learning a language has on brain health, the fact that you will be able to communicate with others means your brain will be more active and engaged for longer periods of the day.”

Bilingual people also scored better in a study released by Alzheimer’s Research in 2017, in which 85 individuals with mild Alzheimer’s were asked to complete a number of tests.

It was found that although participants who were bilingual were on average 5.71 years older as a cohort, they performed better on the cognitive tests and had “greater brain connectivity”.

Put simply, their more active brains were better able to compensate for cognitive decline.

‘15 cigarettes a day’

Reducing loneliness is another benefit of learning a language.

It is logical that if we are unable to speak the language in our country of residence, we are going to communicate less than we would otherwise.

This can leave us feeling on the periphery of local life, or not quite as connected as we might wish to be.

Those who have an active family life and plenty of friends who speak the same language may be surprised to learn that even this may not be enough to stave off a certain type of loneliness proven to have a negative impact on the brain.

Known as ‘trait loneliness’ it occurs when there is a persistent difference between the social relationships we have, and those we desire.

Studies show long-term loneliness may have a negative impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, by increasing our risk factors.

“Just being passive and listening is not good enough,” says Prof Lahiri.

“It is interaction and proper communication that are really important.”

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Learning French is easier when you don’t sweat the small stuff

Five reasons to learn French – and why they may help you pick it up

Learn from the French: how to order the perfect baguette

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