3. Engaging with language develops your cognitive abilities as well as your empathy.
Speaking as a physical action is much more complex than we tend to think, and using even basic language is much more impressive than we may realise.
“Because we use language every day without really thinking about it, we can forget that it’s actually a very complicated skill,” Florence says. “As a child, we put in a lot of effort to master language, but as we grow up, we forget the complexity of what we learnt. Mastering a language is, in fact, a deeply intellectual and physical process.
“We use language every day without remembering the challenge it was for us to initially be able to produce a word. In the context of second language acquisition, we are reminded of the challenge it is just to be able to produce a sound with the right inflection.”
Learning a new language doesn’t just challenge our cognitive abilities; it also develops our empathy. Florence explains that when we learn a second language with another person or in a group setting, we are activating the mirror neurons in our brains. This class of neuron is active when we perform a specific motor act while observing a similar act performed by another individual. Can you remember your primary school teacher helping you sound out your reading? Your mirror neurons enabled you to master the act by practicing what your teacher demonstrated.
“When we are in a situation with others who are also learning a second language, or activating our mirror neurons, we are able to relate to each other as we learn from each other. We know the difficulty of trying and the pride of successfully forming a complete sentence in another language. The shared experience gives us greater empathy,” Florence says.
“That empathy will translate outside of that setting, too. Some people can even be frustrated by others speaking English with an accent. We tend to judge a little bit too fast when someone sounds different to us. Just because someone speaks with an accent doesn’t mean they don’t understand the language or that their brain isn’t working as well as yours. It might even be their third or fourth language. I think it takes empathy to appreciate the beauty of diverse types of people speaking the same language in unique ways.”
“Unless we are reminded of the challenge it is to process, comprehend and use another language, it can be hard for us to listen with empathy.”
JCU Senior Lecturer Dr. Florence Boulard