5 Reasons Why Language Learning Boosts Your Mental Health

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to highlight the profound impact of mental well-being practices. We know that #mentalhealthmatters  – the hashtag has over 13 million posts on Instagram! As a language learning and cultural exchange social enterprise, powered by the talents of displaced and conflict-affected individuals, we believe in the transformative power of language learning — not just as a cognitive exercise but as a vital tool for enhancing mental health. Let’s explore how learning and teaching languages can benefit both learners and educators.

The Mental Health Benefits of Language Learning

Language learning offers numerous mental health advantages. It can significantly reduce stress, alleviate social anxiety, boost self-esteem, and improve problem-solving skills. According to research, it even delays the onset of dementia, making it a powerful tool for cognitive health.

1. Enhancing Focus and Reducing Stress & Anxiety

When you’re focusing on a specific task, it relaxes the nervous system. Learning a new skill gives us a sense of purpose and growth. A team of Harvard researchers found evidence that active learning is actually a more effective stress management technique than passive relaxation.

 2. Combating Depression

Practicing a new language can help distract from negative thoughts and help you feel less isolated. The practice enables you to build social connections, and provide manageable goals, all of which are crucial in combating symptoms of depression.

3. Overcoming Social Anxiety

Language learning helps individuals deal with mistakes and learn how to respond to feedback. By practicing speaking with a language partner, you develop and strengthen social skills. In time, you will become more comfortable meeting new people. Still afraid to speak your target language? Try some of these tips

4. Boosting Self-Esteem

Achieving proficiency in a new language provides a sense of accomplishment that enhances self-worth.

5. Delaying Cognitive Decline

Language learning helps delay mental decline like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Studies suggest that it can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by up to four years!

“A different language is a different vision of life.”

Frederico Fellini

The Unique Role of Refugee Teachers

NaTakallam’s refugee tutors play a crucial role, not only in educating others but also in benefiting themselves through the process of teaching. Here’s how language teaching aids their mental health and integration:

1. Self-Confidence and Empowerment

Teaching their native language allows refugee tutors to regain a sense of agency and self-worth. They feel empowered as they share their knowledge and cultural heritage with others.

2. Building Social Connections

By engaging with learners, refugee teachers build meaningful relationships, reducing feelings of isolation and fostering a sense of community.

3. Easier Emotional Expression & More Accurate Diagnosis

Teaching offers a structured way for refugees to process their experiences and traumas, which can be therapeutic. Afaf Doumani, a behavioral health navigator, emphasizes the importance of communication in mental health. She notes that speaking in one’s mother tongue allows for better articulation of emotions and more accurate diagnoses.

4. Cultural Exchange and Integration

Teaching their language helps refugees integrate into their new communities by bridging cultural gaps and promoting mutual understanding.

5. Gainful employment and a Dignified Income

Through NaTakallam, displaced and conflict-affected individuals are able to gain economic and social access regardless of location and status. 60% of our Language Partners report NaTakallam as their sole source of income.

“Language at its core is centered around people. Language learning by its nature is opening doors to new experiences.”

Kinda, Arabic Language Partner from Syria with NaTakallam since 2021

A Conversation with Afaf Doumani

Afaf Doumani, a Palestinian mental health professional with extensive experience working with refugees, underscores the critical role of language in mental health. With a master’s degree in social work and a background in developmental studies, Afaf has dedicated her career to supporting displaced individuals. She recalls her motivation to study mental health after witnessing the trauma of refugees following the Syrian conflict’s influx into Toledo, Ohio in the United States.

Afaf highlights several challenges refugees face, including the stigma around mental health in their native regions and the significant language barriers that prevent them from seeking help. “Mental health relies heavily on communication—more than physical health. Articulating emotions and sharing personal experiences are crucial for accurate diagnoses,” Afaf explains.

“Language is the essence of mental health. Explaining your feelings in your mother tongue is always easier—you can speak your heart. It’s about having someone who understands your culture and can help you articulate your emotions accurately.”

Afaf Doumani

Working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Afaf focuses on MENA populations, emphasizing the need for mental health professionals who speak the native languages of their clients. She points out that the lack of such professionals often leads to mistrust in therapy interpretation sessions, where unfamiliarity with the interpreter can hinder effective communication. “Deprivation of communication undermines their wellbeing. I’m often the only Arabic-speaking person in the mental health field helping navigate and connect them to services,” she says. 

Afaf’s efforts extend to facilitating support groups for women and children, addressing cultural barriers, and promoting the importance of seeking help. “It’s about breaking the barriers and reminding people that it’s okay to ask for help. We meet them where they are, socializing and building trust,” she emphasizes.

Restoring Dignity & Celebrating Expression Builds Trust

Language learning is a powerful tool for mental health, offering numerous benefits for learners and refugee teachers alike. As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s recognize and embrace the dual impact of language learning: fostering cognitive and emotional well-being for learners while enabling displaced and conflict-affected teachers to express themselves, become more integrated in their communities, maintain and reaffirm their sense of dignity and unique cultural identity and build trust. 

Gain more insights and learn how to Stop Being Afraid to Speak and overcome your fear of utilizing your new language skills in our blog.

NaTakallam also offers Arabic for Professionals. This unique program created in-house by qualified Language Partners from conflict-affected backgrounds is a curriculum designed specifically for students looking to apply their Arabic language skills to their careers – from medical and humanitarian work, to journalism and business – and beyond.

Learn a language, make a friend and support the livelihoods of forcibly displaced persons – from the comfort of your home.

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