“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
~ Albert Einstein
As it turns out, speaking a language isn’t just about using our ears and mouth. Our eyes play an integral role during conversation – and I don’t mean in terms of interpreting body language or unspoken messages. I’m talking about pronunciation. In some cases, your eyes are even more important than your ears.
Take, for example, the McGurk Effect. This phenomenon is a perfect example of the role vision plays when processing the sounds of a language. Here’s how it works:
Imagine closing your eyes and hearing a recording of someone saying the sound, “da”. However, when you open your eyes, and hear the recording again, you’re shown a video of someone making the “ba” sound. You know what often happens in this case? When watching the video of “ba” while hearing the sound “da”, people say they hear “ba” rather than “da”. It’s an aural illusion! Even when you know what’s going on, it’s hard to make your brain hear “da” while your eyes see “ba.” (This is the stuff psycholinguists live for!)
Here’s another way our eyes can fool us… it’s called the Stroop Effect. Most of us reading this would have no trouble saying the following aloud: red blue green orange.
Nor would we stumble over: red blue green orange. But a good many of us will pause a moment before saying: red blue green orange!
Why? Because speaking, with correct pronunciation, involves using every major area of brain functionality. Neurons from the regions responsible for each of our five senses–hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and seeing–need to communicate with one another. This is a whole brain, and difficult, process. And one, by the way, that may be well worth the effort.
It appears that learning a language may be an exceptionally effective tool for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. As Meredith Melnick reported for TIME Healthland:
“The key may be something called cognitive reserve. Learning and speaking two languages requires the brain to work harder, which helps keep it nimble… the idea is to help the brain create and maintain more neural connections. Brains with more cognitive reserve – and therefore more flexibility and executive control – are thought to be better able to compensate for the loss of neurons associated with Alzheimer’s.”
In fact, Ms. Melnick notes that with each language learned, the longer the adult is likely to delay the onset of significant memory loss. She notes that trilinguals were three times less likely to have cognitive problems than bilinguals; quadrilinguals and other polyglots were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems.
This strikes me as a pretty good reason to learn a foreign language. And just like each of the five senses are critical to the process, so too are each of the five areas to creating true fluency: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and… don’t forget, pronunciation!