There are many advantages to learning a foreign language. Research shows, for example, that older people who speak several languages are less likely to develop symptoms of dementia. The bilingual brain is also less distracted, and learning foreign languages also improves creativity. It is also known that once a first foreign language has been learned, it is increasingly less difficult to learn others.
Why is it so important to study foreign languages at school? There are cognitive and emotional benefits of language learning. And among these benefits, there is one that is not necessarily self-evident: it improves tolerance. This effect manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, it opens our eyes to other ways of doing things, what we call “cultural competence”. The other gain from this learning is related to the greater or lesser ease with which one can find oneself in an unfamiliar situation, which is called “ambiguity tolerance”.
Cultural competence is essential in an increasingly globalized world. But how does language learning enhance it? The answer lies in the different types of intelligence. Research on intelligence conducted by psychologist Robert Sternberg describes two types of intelligence and how they relate to language learning in adults. What he calls “practical intelligence” is comparable to social intelligence, as it helps individuals understand non-explicit information in their environment, such as certain meaningful gestures or other socially significant elements.
Learning a language necessarily means learning about different cultures. Students pick up cultural elements associated with the language during class, but also through their immersion experiences. When students learn a language they develop new ways of understanding a culture different from their own through the analysis of cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a new language involves not only the acquisition of linguistic elements, but also the integration of new ways of thinking and behaviours. With the help of their teacher, students can practice developing critical thinking skills about stereotypes associated with different cultures, whether it is about food, appearance, or ways of conversing.
Encountering the unknown
The other way in which language learning improves tolerance is in relation to “ambiguity tolerance”. A person with high ambiguity tolerance finds unusual situations more exciting than frightening. My own research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs shows that language learning improves ambiguity tolerance, especially when the person speaks more than one foreign language.
The phenomenon is quite simple to understand. Any conversation in a foreign language involves the use of unknown words. If one of the interlocutors spent his or her time interrupting the exchange to say, “Wait, I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary,” it would be difficult to argue. People with a high tolerance for ambiguity do not mind continuing the conversation even though they may not understand all the words.
There is no doubt that learning more than one foreign language significantly increases ambiguity tolerance.
What this faculty of understanding changes
A high tolerance of ambiguity has many advantages. It helps students to limit their anxiety in social situations and facilitates their future language learning experiences. Not surprisingly, the more accustomed a person is to learning languages, the more comfortable he or she is with the ambiguity inherent in language learning. But that’s not all. People with a high level of tolerance for ambiguity are more entrepreneurial; they are more optimistic, more inclined towards innovation and risk-taking.
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