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Recent research carried out on more than 800 pupils has highlighted that the more multilingual pupils consider themselves to be, the higher their GCSE scores in all kinds of subjects. Researchers who carried out the study think that this may be due to the fact that children who see themselves as multilingual may have a ‘growth mindset’, which impacts positively on their academic performance.
Having a growth mindset means having self-belief, understanding that skills and abilities are not fixed but can be developed, and being able to reframe setbacks as new challenges to overcome. These are clearly very useful qualities for people learning new languages, an endeavour which is riddled with uncertainty and arguably quite challenging. It is interesting to think that learning new languages, and valuing that complex experience, can help to develop one’s attitudes in a way which will affect other areas of life. Indeed, multilingual who are aware that using several languages with fluency can provide special opportunities may be more motivated to take risks, persevere with their learning, and appreciate its many potential rewards, such as living abroad, experiencing mind-opening cultural experiences, and meeting new people.
While the cognitive benefits of language learning are often cited – such as improved attention, mental alertness, and creative flexibility – the affective and attitudinal benefits of engaging with different languages and cultures are less well-known and less researched. For example, while it may not be surprising that motivation and self-efficacy beliefs can drive language learning, the fact that foreign language enjoyment can decrease students’ anxiety and other negative emotions is also relevant in terms of shaping people’s attitudes towards learning languages.
I have argued elsewhere that the act of learning languages helps the development of valuable competencies such as tolerating ambiguity and regulating emotions. There is, however, growing evidence that engaging with foreign languages and being immersed in a multilingual environment can have other important well-being benefits.
For example, studies have shown that when people start out with high self-esteem and a strong belief that they will be able to cope when learning new languages, they are then more optimistic about controlling stressors in their lives and about their ability to implement coping strategies. In turn, this leads them to make use of more coping actions, therefore meeting their learning goals and better managing anxious feelings. Another recent finding was that people who function more successfully in a foreign-language environment tend to have the predisposition to appraise life and experiences with a positive outlook, that is, they are more self-confident, hold a brighter view of future, are more open to pleasant moments, and generally appreciate life better. Importantly, their positive attitude also leads them to enjoy being immersed in a foreign-language environment and, in turn, the act of positively engaging with different languages, cultures, and contexts can help to promote further positive feelings such as pride and a sense of accomplishment.
One study which explored the role of positive emotions in long-term engagement with a second language noted that sustained learning of another language can also lead to prolonged good moods and an almost constant sense of happiness, contentment, pride and interest. Researchers studied individuals who had experienced a period of intensive involvement in L2 learning and found that a number of them experienced personal growth and improvement. Learners stated that, through language learning, they had acquired new personal value and meaning in relation to discovering and expanding their potential, developing important life skills, and becoming different, unique and better people. They mentioned new desires to aim for higher life opportunities and new understandings of themselves, their languages, and life. It is striking that these potentially transformational, life-changing, and long-term impacts of language-learning are not more well-known or more extensively researched.
There are clearly important non-cognitive benefits to be gained from being immersed in different languages and cultures that can make a significant difference to people’s behaviours, future decision-making, and other important physical and mental health outcomes. If you haven’t yet made a resolution for the new year, perhaps you could learn a foreign language – who knows where it might take you.
Séverine Hubscher-Davidson, PhD is an academic and freelance writer based in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.