Top Five Reasons to Learn a New Language If You’re Over 30

San Francisco Row HouseOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I just started taking Russian classes. My classmates and I arrive promptly at 6:15 and greet each other with a polite “Prevyet. Kak dela?” A lot of our friends are impressed but confused as to, well, why would you do this to yourself? I mean, who has the time, they say.

If you have the time to watch The Voice or Honey Boo Boo, then you have the time to study another language. Trust me.

And here’s why you should.

In no particular order:

  1. You get to be a child again. And hell, who doesn’t want that? You are allowed–no, wait–encouraged to make mistakes. You get to use flashcards. You can learn animal names all over again (animal cookies encouraged). You get to eat M&Ms right out of the bag as you count them. Sesame Street gets to charm you all over again in another language. And best of all? You sing songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”–but in Russian. Which is way cool.
  2. Making new friends is easy in language class. Because you have to talk to your neighbors. Out in the real world, it’s hard to make new friends with other grown-ups. Not in language class. I’m one of the shyest people alive, and I love learning languages. Why? The conversation’s printed right there in the book. No worrying about what to say to your new friend. Your lines are right there. In no time, you’ll be talking about your families and hobbies. And if you screw up? Well, onto #3.
  3. You’ve grown up enough to laugh at yourself. When learning a new language, the joke’s really on you most of the time. You sound like that slow reader the teacher had to put in the corner in fifth grade. You’ll end up saying “bitch” when you really and truly only meant to say “dog”. You’ll confuse genders, including your own. All sorts of existential mayhem ensues. But you know what? At your age, it’s all in good fun. You haven’t been this silly since college, and it’s never felt so good.
  4. Once you’ve learned one language… Seriously. Russian is my fourth language. And each time it gets easier. Not only do you develop a firmer grasp of your native grammar, you get a whole lot better at dealing with unfamiliarity in general. The cognitive benefits are well documented. But as you get more comfortable with discomfort, there are immense payoffs in the social realm, too. A middle-aged student of mine from Mexico put it best, “Learning a new language is like going into another house. The more languages you learn, the more houses you’ve seen into. And you learn four or five or six, well. Then you’ve seen the whole neighborhood!”
  5. You develop a connection to cultures and worldviews beyond your own. Just like my student implied, the world is a neighborhood now. Whether we like how that guy down the street mows his lawn, we’re kind of stuck with him. Learning a foreign language demystifies another culture. And in demystifying it, your new knowledge outfits you to live in our global neighborhood with a lot more grace and a lot less anxiety. That paranoia you have sitting in the nail salon, worrying the Vietnamese women are gossiping about your ratty loafers? Or that fear you have in the Ethiopian market that the man yelling into the stock room is threatening to kill the clerk? In a world where the media present murder, rape, and terrorism as commonplace, your brain likely jumps to worst-case scenarios when confronted with unknowns. But once you learn another language or two, you discover that everyone’s chitchat is about as banal as the Monday morning banter at the bus stop. How was your weekend? Oh, fine. How was yours?

And if your manicurists happen to know each other better than that? Well then. You’re in for some juicy gossip about their neighbors. Since they think you can’t understand and won’t be passing any of it on.

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