Language is core to the way we communicate, and an essential tool for learning. But research has shown that while mastering one language has its benefits, learning a second language can lead to substantial improvements in an individual’s cognitive skills, academic potential and career prospects.
Studies have long established that for younger students, learning a second language can have a powerful, positive impact on their learning outcomes. However, it’s also becoming clear that a second language can be particularly beneficial for mature students as well.
In 2019, Bencie Woll and Li Wei of University College London conducted a study into the social impact of bilingualism. Their final report, submitted to the British Academy, outlined a number of benefits to learning a second language.1
One of their findings highlighted the potential of language learning for older populations. In their report, they explained that “Foreign language learning programmes aimed at older populations may help to build cognitive reserve because language learning engages an extensive brain network that is known to overlap with the regions negatively affected by the aging process”.
Woll and Wei recommended that this “potentially fruitful” hypothesis should be further researched. If it can be established that learning a second language is helpful for older populations, it underlines the strength of education as a benefit for students of all ages.
Age is currently one of a number of barriers to learning. In 2019, the Adult Participation in Learning Survey, conducted by the Learning and Work Institute, recorded its lowest rate of adult learning participation in the survey’s 23-year history, with only 33% of UK adults saying that they had participated in learning in the preceding three years.2
The pandemic is likely to have also affected the number of adults in education, making it increasingly important that mature students are able to recognise and benefit from learning opportunities.
Particularly for mature, international students, this focus on language learning could reinforce the benefits of education.
We all have a duty to increase access to learning, and lower barriers to educational opportunities. By emphasising the potential of learning a second language for mature students, we can demonstrate the positive impact of education on international students of all ages.
The Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once remarked that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” By encouraging mature students to learn a new language, we can help them to expand their horizons, and use learning to break down limits to their potential.
1 Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning – https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/cognitive-benefits-language-learning-perspectives-report/
2 Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2019 – https://learningandwork.org.uk/resources/research-and-reports/adult-participation-in-learning-survey-2019/