I know lots of people who spend hours a week working through sudoku* squares, crossword puzzles, and brain training apps like Lumosity. Some folks no doubt genuinely enjoy these activities, doing them for leisure’s sake with little to no thought of their supposed “brain benefits.” Which is totally fine by me. But I suspect that many people are forcing themselves through these puzzles because they want to keep their brains young, stave off neurodegenerative diseases, and improve cognitive firepower. The research does indeed seem to support the notion that doing difficult mental tasks can help change how one’s brain is wired and increase “neurogenesis” and “brain plasticity.” But as a biased language addict, I feel compelled to ask the obvious question:
Given all the time and energy one spends trying to solve such puzzles, why not just learn a language instead?
I haven’t come across any studies yet that substantiate this (if you have, please send them to me!), but I hypothesize that learning languages has a far greater impact on brain plasticity than solving simple math or vocabulary puzzles. Think about it: solving a sudoku puzzle only requires sensory input from the eyes, basic addition, and movement of the hand to write the numbers. Speaking a language with another human being is a far more complex “bio-psycho-social” skill that requires:
- The use of multiple senses, including sight, sound, and physical movement (e.g. moving your tongue, lips, larynx, hands, etc.).
- The reading of subtle changes in tone, speed, volume, and body language.
- The discernment and production of exact auditory signals.
- The processing of complex syntax and production of grammatically correct sentences.
Perhaps more important than the potential neural benefits are the many practical advantages offered by foreign languages over puzzles and brain training apps. When you solve a crossword puzzle for example, all you are left with is temporary satisfaction and a worthless piece of paper. Learning to understand and speak a foreign language, on the other hand, enables you to:
- Delve more deeply into the culture, psychology, art, history, sports, cuisines, etc. of exotic lands. Yes, you can read about the history and philosophy of aikido (合気道・あいきどう) in English, for example, but you will get much more by learning “The Way of Unifying Life Energy” in Japanese.
- Travel more easily and enjoyably. Your Lonely Planet guidebook might help you avoid some common scams or pick a hostel, but conversational fluency in the local language allows you to go further off the beaten path, avoid expat bubbles, find hidden gems, and interact with locals.
- Travel more cheaply. There are usually three prices for things: 1) the monolingual foreigner price ($$$), 2) the bilingual foreigner price ($$), and 3) the local price ($). While you may never be able to pass for a true local (whether for ethnic or linguistic reasons), you can at least get close enough to reap significant cost-savings.
Sudoku, crosswords, and Lumosity are all great in their own way, but none of them can ever unlock any of these advantages. So put down your pencil and pick up your smartphone to run through some flashcards on Anki. Listen to a foreign language podcast. Or set up a chat with a foreign language tutor on iTalki. These activities are good for your brain and your life.
* The word “sudoku” comes from 数独 (すうどく), a Japanese word that literally means “number” (数) plus “single” (独), since only a single unique number can go in each square.