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Planning Retirement Online

Languages around the world

August 2016

Have more fun on holiday!

Take even a short trip abroad and it becomes clear that you could have much more fun if you could speak even a little bit of the language. Well, it is never too late to learn!

Learning a new language later in life is said to be one of the most beneficial mind exercises you can do. Evidently it brings into play many aspects of the brain that can be really useful at our age.

The problem is that as we age, our “neuroplasticity” general decreases, this means the brain becomes less able to change itself in response to experiences.

Learning a language can help exercise these areas. Some neuroscientists call it executive function, addressing a set of mental processes that enable us to vary our thoughts and behaviours from one moment to the next.

Interestingly some aspects of learning a language can become easier as we age. Albert Costa, a professor or neuroscience specialising in bilingualism at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, says picking up a new language’s vocabulary can be easier for adults because new words can be linked with pre-existing words and knowledge. But older learners may well have more problems with grammar, and also with pronunciation and accents, because phonemes (sounds) of a language are picked up naturally by children but this ability declines with age.

Some recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow age-related cognnitive decline and even delay the onset of dementia.

So, if learning a language is a good idea, what is the best language to learn. Obviously if you always go to France or Spain for a holiday, or have relations living in a particularly country, then learning that language would be a good choice. European languages generally are easier for native English speakers to learn because so many words are closely related. French shares an alphabet and many words with English, and with a familiar alphabet and many similar words, it can be a good choice for first time language learners.

Spanish and Italian also come under this category, and Italian also shares many layers of vocabulary thanks to its Latin roots. Dutch is a great language to pick up as it has familiar sentence structures and pronunciation; German of course has many links with English but the detailed grammar and pronunciation can be a challenge to begin with.

With tourism on the increase in the Nordic countries, it might be worthwhile considering Norwegian or even Swedish. Norwegian and Swedish share many features with English including a similar word order and structure.
Another language that has quite a bit of familiarity with native English speakers is Afrikaans, thanks to its connection with Dutch. A good language to get involved in if you are visiting South Africa.

Often, especially when encouraging grand children, mandarin Chinese is suggested as the best language to learn. Certainly it is the most widely spoken language on earth, with over 1 billion speakers, but the challenges of all those characters and a very different pronunciation could be a step too far for people our age. Each word can often be pronounced in many different ways using different tones. Picking up a few key words such as Ni Hao (nee how) for hello is often as far as many of us will ever get!

Actually if you are thinking of learning by popularity and most spoken, then you might be surprised. There appear no totally accepted reports on this, but two tables below give a good indication of the sort of languages that are most widely spoken in terms of country size and then number of speakers. Portuguese comes out so much higher than most people expect, helped by the people in Brazil. If you learn Malay or Indonesian, there are many dialects which are comprehensible across all the areas, so that grouped together this language is spoken by around 160 million people.

Arabic is an interesting one as while most people think it is simply limited to Middle East countries, in fact it is the language of the Koran, so millions of Moslems in other countries can also speak or have a working knowledge of Arabic.

If you are planning on visiting India, you need to choose your language carefully as the country has many different languages in different areas. If you have relations in a particular area, then of course the decision is easy, but otherwise Hindustani is the best overall language to learn with over 490 million speakers. Also, thanks to the booming Indian film industry, you can find films in Hindustani often with English subtitles, and this really can aid learning as well as making it really enjoyable and fun.

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