All wisdom can be found by repeatedly watching Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.   One thing I really admire about Cruise’s Captain Nathan Algren is his ability to play with the children of the samurai, ask questions, and learn the language.  Apparently, during the Indian wars, he had mastered some of the Native American languages.   (It really saved the movie from too many subtitles.  I want to watch a movie not read subtitles.  If I wanted to read I would buy a copy of the Enquirer. 🙂

Limit Over!--Inspirational Sign from Japanese Classroom

What Algren may not have known, is that his ability to speak more than one language may have long-term cognitive benefits.   According to a recent New York Times Article on the Benefits of Bilingualism, “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter”, there are several advantages to cross-training your brain with a foreign language:

Breakthrough--Most Japanese Schools Have Inspirational Slogans--This one is in English

  • improved cognitive skills
  • potential protection from dementia
  • better functioning of the brain’s “executive function” or command systems
  • heightened ability to monitor the environment
  • the ability to make a samurai wife forgive you for killing her husband

According to the experts cited in the article, recent research indicates that the cognitive benefits come from how speaking two languages creates “interference” which gets the brain to “resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”  Another way to think of it (and bandy a frivolous samurai metaphor about) is to imagine training in sword fighting with a blindfold on.   It forces the brain to compensate and increases performance when the blindfold is taken off.  (Or results in a lot of broken furniture.)

I’ve been studying Japanese consistently for four or five years now.  Am I bilingual?—no.  In fact that is the premise of my book proposal, tentatively titled Sumo Years.   Am I smarter?  I don’t think so.   But the fact that I have made progress and now can have fun with Japanese, has reignited my sense of what is possible in other areas besides Japanese.

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.–Vincent Van Gogh

Khatz, from is fond of saying, if you can play Farmville, you can learn a foreign language.   If it feels impossible, but you’ve always dreamed of doing it–learn a foreign language.   Pick up one little piece of it and have fun with it.   Channel your inner Nathan Algren.  Who knows?  You just might end up a little smarter.


Khatz’s inspirational article on giving up on struggle when approaching foreign language.