Your brain loves language–feed it more

Your brain delights in connecting and communicating
Your brain delights in connecting and communicating

Everyone loves the joy of understanding a new language. When people are speaking with others in a new language–whether in or outside of a classroom–they’re having fun. They might sound clumsy, but good-natured laughter takes the place of gawkiness. A couple of folks might feel frustrated, but if someone engages them, sure enough they’ll get into it. The brain has everything it needs to learn languages, and it will reward itself with giddy ecstasy as it absorbs more words and creates relations with others. It loves to make new language connections and rewards us with cerebral sprays of happy chemicals.

At my work we have a Spanish table during lunch once a week. Anyone of any level of Spanish ability–beginner through native speaker–can come to speak and hear Spanish. The awkwardness delights as we speak slowly, loudly, and with large hand gestures. Google Translate fills in the gaps that the native speakers can’t.

Everyone leaves lunch happy, some even giddy. People who struggle through a sentence see progress after just a couple sessions–and we all enjoy ourselves. I was chatting afterwards with a gentleman who said how cool it was that he was able to put ideas together as he grasped this or that word from what we were saying. I realized that the human brain enjoys comprehending.

Who doesn’t smile when they finally understand a complete thought in a new language? I’ve never seen someone connect the language dots and remain nonchalant. Our brain must shoot some chemical, some endorphin, into itself when it makes that connection. It’s wired to feel happy when it grows in language comprehension.

Every human child works very hard to learn language. We would have been exhausted if the brain didn’t offer itself so many rewards. We get the reward of forging a new brain pathway, plus the emotional connection with another person, someone who wants to understand us and grow closer to us. Language offers the joy of connection–whether between people or neurons.

Brains are buit to love to construct new connections off the beaten (neural) path. What makes everyone laugh? Jokes! What is a joke but using language in a way that subverts our expectations? In everyday life, our brain wires language together to run “typical” processing. When we hear or see language that goes against that wiring, our brain wires language together in a new way–and we love it! (A favorite example: “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinocerous?” “Elephino!” [Hell if I know!])

The newer and fresher the joke, the more delight we receive. Kids, with their fresh minds, can repeat the same joke over and over and keep laughing till they lose their breath. Newness is the key. Once a joke becomes ingrained into our internal language matrix, the joke becomes old; when we can guess the punch line, we laugh less.

New languages sit nicely in reach of almost everyone, as the human brain is built to contain multiple languages. We’re all polyglots waiting to happen! In many cultures in the world, throughout history, people grow up speaking multiple languages. People were speaking several languages in colonial North America (see this post regarding English colonies and this one for Dutch), and in modern Singapore and India (see this post and this one). We even see this in the modern US. How often do we meet uneducated immigrants here who speak English in addition to their native language(s) (see this post)? The human brain soaks in new languages with or without formal education. For example, the multi-lingual Dutch fur trappers and the average polyglot citizen of Hyderabad may not be particularly well-educated–if they’re educated formally at all. Humans pick up languages when the environment is correct because the brain loves to absorb them.

Our brain can’t help but love languages. It loves to create new connections. The person who rejects their natural love for languages denies themselves of great joy. When you can finally pronounce “Hello” in Chinese with the correct tones, or when you are shocked that you actually understood a response to your question in Spanish, you will smile–guaranteed. You mastered a new skill and you connected with someone in a new way. Your brain thanks you.

Tell me about the greatest “Aha!” moment of language-learning for you!

Photo credit: Photosightfaces / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

6 thoughts on “Your brain loves language–feed it more

  1. This is brilliant, thank you! I love this idea that talking, using language and switching language releases endorphines and makes us happy. I would even say that learning a language without being forced to do so – for example, because you need to be proficient in it for your work or other purposes – is the key. Personally I think I feel different grades of “happyness” depending on how I learn it: the natural way, learning by doing and full immersion is the one that is most pleasant for me. – I recall the endless word lists while learning Latin until I found out a way to avoid them: learning every word in context(s).
    You ask for an “Aha!” moment: Every time I did understand a full sentence in the other language! The sentences weren’t long, every day small talk, but the feeling that a dialogue was happening was priceless!


    1. Thanks–every sentence brought you joy. That’s a recipe for happiness that I would recommend to everyone!

      I wonder how long that “word list” approach to Latin has been around, as it’s universally unstimulating, I imagine. I learned that Thomas Jefferson’s teacher had a small group of students. First thing, the teacher would grab a Latin volume from the shelf, and the group would spend the morning translating together and discussing the content. That’s the most fun with Latin I can imagine.

      And that was the 18th century. What has our educational progress wrought…?


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