Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1)Go directly to second-level navigation (Alt 3)Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Digitization and multilingualism
"The world is language": Why language learning is worthwhile even in the digital age

| © Adobe Stock

Learning a new language is hard work. Nowadays, innovative technology helps us communicate in different languages. But will translation apps soon make learning a foreign language superfluous? What will happen to the brain if we stop learning other languages? And how can we rekindle the desire to learn another language today? In the following interview, Professors Michaela Sambanis and Heiner Böttger share some fascinating findings from neuroscience research on language learning.

By Stefanie Eisenreich and Dr. Paula Scholeman

Ms Sambanis, let's start with a provocative question: What with all the good translation programmes at our disposal, what’s the point of learning a foreign language nowadays?

Univ.-Prof. Dr.Michaela Sambanis ist Lehrstuhlinhaberin für die Didaktik des Englischen an der Freien Universität Berlin. Sie verbindet Neurowissenschaften mit Didaktik und schlüsselt Wissensbestände für die Praxisanwendung auf. Univ.Prof. Dr. Michaela Sambanis | © Sambanis Michaela Sambanis: Learning languages contributes naturally to various educational processes. The world is language. We engage with the Other and, in so doing, get to know other cultures and traditions, which can help us become more open-minded. Language learning is also, economically speaking, a smart investment with a big return. Learning more than one language triggers very specific growth and organization processes in the brain, which pay off. It has been shown, for example, to slow down cognitive ageing and dementia, which sets in four or five years later. And after a stroke, polyglots are twice as likely to recover their cognitive abilities. If you actually calculate the potential savings in healthcare alone, the sums involved are enormous.

"Technology distances us from one another and we suffer as a result"

Nowadays, you can stick an earbud in your ear during a conversation and immediately receive a simultaneous translation of what’s being said. Do you think this technology in particular will hasten a worldwide decline in foreign language learning?

Michaela Sambanis: I hope not. On the one hand, it's great that we have this technology today, without which we wouldn't be able to communicate with one another this way. On the other hand, however, it distances us from one another and we suffer as a result. We’re doing away with a whole dimension of interaction. That aside, I shudder to think of the consequences if people were to simply stop challenging their brains by learning languages. In this connection, let's take a look at the Flynn effect. For many decades, IQ test scores showed we were steadily getting smarter. But for a few years now, the scores have stagnated or even declined. The Flynn effect suggests that we’re not using our real capacities in certain areas anymore, especially – and this is most intriguing –in an area in which technology now plays a huge role, namely navigation. In this day and age, who really still makes a mental map of places they’re in? We immediately resort to GPS and are basically unable to get our bearings without it anymore.

“Monolingualism is cultural poverty” 

What does multilingualism mean to a society?

Heiner Böttger ist Professor für Englischdidaktik an der Katholischen Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. Sein Forschungsinteresse konzentriert sich aktuell auf Mehrsprachigkeit und die Language educational neurosciences. Professor Heiner Böttger | © Böttger Heiner Böttger: I went to Auckland (New Zealand) in 2015 for a conference on multilingualism. A Maori professor there started crying 15 minutes into his keynote address. Why? Because the government, whose education policy appears to be under the thumb of the UK, had decided shortly before the conference that all schools there should start with English as the first language of instruction at school. Now you have to bear in mind that up to 64 different island languages may be represented in a given primary school in Auckland. If English now becomes the first language kids learn at school, the indigenous island languages are going to die out: no one will be able to speak them anymore in the next generation or the one after that. Then, through their influence on educational policy language-teaching, the British will have achieved after all what they couldn’t achieve through colonization. Owing to the dictatorship of a single language, in this case English over New Zealand, we are witnessing a cultural decline and the demise of "languages of origin".

This single-language dictatorship actually extends worldwide: English has prevailed as the global language.

Heiner Böttger: Yes, and that’s frustrating. We really need to get away from an ideology based on the value of a particular language and look instead at all the things different languages can do – not just English as the lingua franca. Certain myths persist in this regard: English is often said to be an easy language. That’s true up to a certain “survival level”. But take it to a more demanding level of proficiency and English gets tricky, with only a small number of hard and fast rules: everything else is a matter of the speaker or writer’s intentions.

"Learning has to be tangible and useful in everyday life"

Unlike English, German and French are considered hard languages to learn. Do such preconceptions influence foreign language learning? What makes learning a language appealing?

Michaela Sambanis: We know from research in education and psychology that attitudes are a key factor here. But we mustn’t forget that English is very present in our day-to-day lives. It’s the language of the Internet and the media. It’s part and parcel of youth culture. It feels familiar and we can’t help noticing how useful it is in everyday life. Other languages are generally less present, which makes English classes at school all the more. In this connection, there’s been some very striking research on boredom. High school students were asked how boring they find various subjects at school and why. Music classes come off badly, followed by physics and mathematics. English, on the other hand, is rated more favourably. Students find the subject useful and can directly apply what they’ve learnt. They can express their opinions and discuss current issues in English class, and they can see its relevance to everyday life. These were the factors that informed their evaluations. We can draw on them to reach some conclusions: learning has got to be tangible, useful in everyday life and, above all, relevant.

"A gift for languages can be taught" 

How important is it to be endowed with a gift for languages? Can it be measured in the brain?

Michaela Sambanis: One of the leading researchers in this field is Dr Jentschke, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Bergen in Norway who’s doing research on music and language mapping and processing in the brain. According to Jentschke, so far there is no robust evidence of an innate aptitude for languages. On the contrary, two factors seem to make the difference: first of all, how early in life you start practising a language. And second, how much time you put into learning and practising it. The latest research points against any innate aptitudes and towards the development of something that lies dormant in all of us, but doesn’t get kissed awake in some of us. Still, I’d affirm that a genetic make-up does exist and corresponds to a sort of bottleneck structure. If I don't have wings, I can’t fly. Besides the time factors (when you start learning a language, how long you study it and how frequently you practise it), the decisive factor for us educationalists is the quality of interaction.

How can we overcome existing language barriers?

Michaela Sambanis: The brain is mutable and you need plenty of positive thinking to rewire it. So the idea is to create lots of opportunities to drive home the awareness: "Hey, I can do that!” You can rewire your brain through small steps, examples and positive role models. But you need patience because an aversion to learning foreign languages is rooted in a whole network that has built up in the brain. And it’s emotionally fraught. So basically you’ve got to disassemble this network and put together a new one, which has to be even stronger than the old one you’re replacing or compensating for. Positive impressions, gratifying experiences that give us a sense of achievement help break such vicious circles.

Interview partner:

Heiner Böttger is professor of English didactics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.
His research interests currently focus on multilingualism and the language educational neurosciences.

Univ.Prof. Dr.Michaela Sambanis holds the chair for the Didactics of English at the Freie Universität Berlin. She combines neuroscience with didactics and breaks down bodies of knowledge for practical application.