As I counted down the months, weeks and days to My Year In Flux, I found myself feverishly casting around for displacement activity to which I could apply myself. Of the several new hobbies which have kept the madness at bay, the most rewarding by far was learning a new language from scratch. Then I got curious and wondered whether the warm glow I was getting from my Spanish studies was something more than mere novelty.

Linguists have healthier brains
My limited research turned up several scientific studies claiming that multi-linguists have healthier brains than those who only speak a single language.

Human brain illustration

Image courtesy of flickr.com/photos/vaxzine/

This might be the tip of a very large Flux-shaped iceberg I had not expected – could skipping merrily away from routine to experience new stuff be great fun AND nutritious brain food to boot? Double bonus!

“there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape,”

Johan Mårtensson, Psychology Researcher, Lund University

Brain sponge
Of course, I may have missed the brain-growth boat altogether: as adults we become dull, conservative creatures of habit, accumulating emotional intelligence, knowledge base and skill sets whilst our capacity for learning quietly drifts in the opposite direction until we finally become cynical old moaners, writing outraged letters to anyone who will listen.

So learning a new language in my thirties was bound to be a challenge – I know my brain is now slower to sponge up new vocabulary, and quick to leak out important grammar that really needed to stay lodged. This is how my Mum always talked about linguistics – she pushed heavily for me to learn French from an early age, using the sponge analogy as a motivator. Though I didn’t thank her for it at the time, to this day I can confidently navigate my way from the train station to the library at any time of day in any French speaking country.

I’ll never forget my French, because the part of my brain which stores that information has got it ‘locked in’. But having not exercised the ol’ bonce in this way for almost 15 years, it has proved a challenge, but one which is clearly making my mind healthier.

Learning languages keeps the brain in shape
Researchers in the USA validate my fuzzy feeling further, claiming that learning a foreign language “rewires your brain” . I had only dreamed of achieving such a transition when I began thinking about My Year In Flux.

Yet another raft of research goes further still, proffering the theory that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia could even be staved off a little through multilingualism.

“Speaking more than one language protects the brain against cognitive decline and makes a person better at multi-tasking,”

Karin Zeitvogel for Agence France-Presse.

The old adage might state that travel broadens the mind (a theory I’ll be testing out in the coming months too), but it seems that language can be a potent brain-expander itself.

As we get older, we become increasingly blinkered in so many aspects of our life – the coming year is all about finding out what can be achieved by ignoring narrow-minded familiarity and comfort in favour of novelty and risk, and it feels like my attempts to mangle the Spanish language have kick-started the process in spectacular fashion.

¡Hasta la vista!

(I bet no one ever says that in Spanish speaking countries ;-) )