Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tip #62: Learn (or relearn) another language

Well, it took me some time, considering my job is precisely teaching a foreign language, but here it is. I'm going to tell you how new advances in neuroscience are showing that the brains of bilingual individuals are "nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer" (From TIME, How the Brain Benefits from Being Bilingual). And, according to this other article,  The Bilingual Brain, it seems that the effects on the brain of knowing another language help children be able to focus more and concentrate longer during school tasks, but the benefits are also extended to adults, not only because of the already mentioned delay in dementia and Alzheimer's but also because bilingual adults seem to have a more dense gray matter, which helps them process language and communication better. One possible explanation, according to the same article,  is that bilinguals may get more oxygen and blood to the brain and keep nerve connections healthy, which, in my view, could possibly benefit the whole person.

And today I'm going to share with you a TED talk, which is not really about all this, but it is still fascinating. It describes a start up called Duolingo, which you may have heard about. As a professor of Spanish I prefer to think that to learn a language it is still better to take a class, or better yet, take a class in the country where the language is spoken, but I definitely see a lot of pedagogical value in Duolingo. And I do like that it is free. At the moment, you can learn Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and German, but they plan on adding more languages. What I like is that it is very simple, and it is also fun (as they have taken cues from gamification), and you can create a team with friends so you can motivate each other.

But besides checking out Duolingo, I would like you to see the talk because, to me, it is very inspiring. The speaker is a wiz kid from Guatemala who is one of the computer scientists who invented the "Captcha" system. He explains that part in detail, so I will not say more here. But I am extremely excited to see how he (and his team at Carnegie Mellon) have taken the idea of all (millions) of us doing just a little (typing a few words, spending 10 seconds on it) and using that labor to actually digitize old texts. And with Duolingo, his goal is to have everyone translating the web. I'm not sure that Duolingo can do that, but I have a feeling that he knows what he's talking about.

Although I also see the potential for this kind of enterprises to obliterate many jobs in the future, maybe even mine, I still see this type of projects as the beginning of something remarkable which will be helpful for all humanity. For example, in medicine, when we can use the data from every single patient who has something like cancer, we can probably start seeing more clearly patterns which will help us find a solution to it. I already touched a bit upon this when I talked about abundance, and this talk reinforces that idea.

Here's the talk, with the subtitles in Spanish, so we all start practicing:

And do not get discouraged if you feel like you are too old to learn a new language. I think that that's one of the beauties of Duolingo, that they make it simple for everyone, and, if nothing else, treat it as a game, which is also very good for you, as we will see in an upcoming tip.

Let me know if you have tried it already. And, as always, thanks for being there, on the other side of the screen, for me.