If I were to learn a second language which language in the world would confer the greatest cognitive benefit to a native English speaker? Would, say, Japanese confer greater benefit than Spanish due to being more different from English?

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    What do you mean by "cognitive benefit"? And how could it be measured? Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 16:31
  • Everybody has their own, unique, internal representation of their own, unique, history of speaking and listening. That means that some people will derive almost no cognitive benefit (whatever that might mean) from any given language, while others will derive a lot. And there's no way to predict. So you might as well learn one you want to speak.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 21:45
  • By "cognitive benefit" I mean increasing mental flexibility, problem solving ability, keeping Alzheimer's disease at bay, and other similar things. Haven't there been studies showing that these traits improve by learning foreign languages? As for how it could be measured I don't know maybe IQ test score differences between people with different second languages. In any case, I thought that if it is learning the new concepts and ways of thinking in the new language which produces these benefits then increasingly dissimilar languages should confer greater benefit. Is this not true? Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 3:20
  • @Silhalnor do you want to know the most difficult language to learn or the most distant language from English?
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 9:35
  • @Anixx I am looking for the most beneficial, which I predicted would be the one most distant from English. I do not know if this prediction is correct or not however. Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 23:35

2 Answers 2


You seem to be a bit confused about your own question. You can't really tell us what you mean by "congative benefit" or how one would measure it. I think you may mean one of two things, so:

Linguistic Relativity

This is the assumption that the language you speak affects the way your brain works. That maybe one language makes math easier to comprehend and perform or that maybe another is better for thinking about spacial relationships. This is what's known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (specifically, the strong version). It has been widely studied and, unfortunately, largely disproven.

What you can find evidence for is that language provides very superficial differences. A popular experiment is to compare the adjectives generated by native speakers of two different languages when showed a noun that is masculine in one and feminine in another. These speakers tend to generate adjectives associated with the noun's gender in their native language. You can listen to this NPR clip, but know that this program is a bit misleading because it presents this research as new (it isn't) and also know that this effect is not nearly as significant as the program tries to make it seem (it's not that speakers of a language where "bridge" is feminine can't see its masculine attributes or that they think those attributes do not exist, it's just that they show a statistical preference to generating feminine attributes). Also there is evidence to suggest that language plays a large role in colour perception (starting on page 11).

For this perspective, learning a language what classifies nouns differently than your native language could theoretically broaden your perception of objects and colours. However, don't get too excited. Most of the research is done on native speakers of languages. According to the critical period hypothesis, by the time you're an adult your brain is pretty set in it's ways so I would expect any Sapir-Whorfian boost to your cognitive skills from learning a foreign language to be minimal.


While Sapir-Whorf is a more detailed and interesting answer, I heavily suspect that what actually happened is that you read an article saying that bilinguals delayed onset of Alzheimer's related dementia and then extrapolated from there. Looking at that article we see similar vague references to cognative skills without explaination so to what it means:

Learning a second language and speaking it regularly can improve your cognitive skills...

I actually found the original paper for this research. The papers is rather unclear about at which age the bilingual patients acquired their second language, which I find a bit suspicious since language acquisition in children is very different from language acquisition in adults. Reading between the lines (and knowing the demographics of Toronto), it seems that most of the bilingual patients are immigrants to Canada, meaning many may have learned English as an adult. This is good news you for you.

However, there is another problem. The paper talks about bilingualism as being a factor in "building a cognitive reserve", but they don't claim it's the only factor. Surely there must be other activities or combinations of activities that provide just as great a benefit. In fact, the paper draws a link between bilingualism and multitasking, that having to switch between the languages is what helps the patients.


So which language is the most beneficial? Well, so far as I can tell no research has been done on this. Your intuition seems to be that the most beneficial language is the one which is most different from your native language. While that certainly is logical, the common thread in the research I'm seeing is that the language that you learn is not nearly as important as the fact that you learn another language.

I can tell you from experience that learning a language very different from your native language is difficult and frustrating and makes you likely to want to give up (I'm a native English speaker learning Korean). If the benefits are equal, you might as well learn something more closely related to your native language.

  • Thank you very much! It sounds like I could learn something like Esperanto (an invented language designed to be easy to learn) and probably gain most of the same benefits as any other language. This was an informative and detailed response, certainly more detailed than I would have expected for a question that scored negative 2. I guess I was too vague? I haven't really gotten a handle on how to ask questions on this site yet. I think I'm used to being able to elaborate until I am understood. Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 13:13
  • @Silhalnor A big part of these studies, particularly the Alzheimer's one, is continued usage, not just studying it for 6 months and then forgetting it. One of the problems with Esperanto is that there are so few speakers (however there is some evidence to suggest that the early success gained from Esperanto builds confidence and motivation for learning other languages). I would suggest thinking about your existing friends. Do any of them speak another language? Would they be willing to converse with you in it? Are any of your friends willing to learn a language along with you?
    – acattle
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 14:11
  • @Silhalnor A good question should have a clearly defined scope and be answerable with facts, not opinions (and including any research you've already done helps). That's why in my answer I gave academic sources supporting my answer. However, I also had to guess what you meant by "cognitive benefit" (thus my two interpretations). If people need to guess what you want then your question isn't clear and you need to hit the "edit" button and add more detail. That's why we leave comments asking questions. Even if you don't know "official" terms, just be specific in what you want to know.
    – acattle
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 14:24
  • My statement about Esperanto was really more theoretical. In practice I am fully aware that I will not be able to keep up my motivation for just any language, just the ones I have an interest in. Except maybe Esperanto if I can learn it really fast. You are right though that continuing to use it afterwards would be difficult so I will consider those factors. As for the quality of my questions, I will be sure to keep it in mind in the future. Especially poorly defined terms. Commented Apr 18, 2013 at 0:30

Honestly, if you're looking for maximum "cognitive benefit", what you'll want to do is maximize how proficient you become in the language, which means choosing a language that you'll work hard to learn and not give up. So choose a language that you're interested in, and actually learn it. Even if there is a difference between languages in terms of their benefits, gaining fluency in the least helpful will be more helpful than spending three weeks learning the most helpful, then giving up.

  • That's a good point, although it doesn't strictly answer the question I posed. Indeed, it may turn out that my assumption that some languages are more beneficial than others is wrong and thus the question would have no real answer. I will accept this answer for now unless someone provides evidence that there are significantly more gains from learning one language over another and why this is. Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 23:49

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