As a linguist by training, I have always liked learning new languages. In fact, English is not my native language, Russian is. I started truly learning English when I was in high school and added a few more languages later while studying linguistics. After reading "The Bilingual Brain" in the Society for Neuroscience Brain Briefings, I am considering adding a new language to my 2009 resolutions:
Those who start learning languages at an early age benefit the most.
I am glad I am raising my daughter bilingual (English and Russian), and we'll be adding Spanish soon.
Adults benefit from learning languages as well. There are many misconceptions surrounding adult language learning, especially about the "critical period" hypothesis that argues that the brain is too rigid to learn after puberty, making second language acquisition more difficult for adults. Current neuroscience research into the competitive nature of brain plasticity offers a different explanation. The skills we practice compete for our brain map space. In his book "The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," Norman Doidge writes:
But why, if this is true, is it easier to learn a second language when we are young? Is there not competition then too? Not really. If two languages are learned at the same time, during the critical period, both get a foothold. Brain scans, says Merzenich, show that in a bilingual child all the sounds of its two languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from both languages."
This can also explain why learning a language as an adult is quite possible and much easier if you immerse yourself in the environment where that language is spoken, or if you otherwise have a strong need or desire to learn it, for example, when your close friends, your spouse, or your co-workers speak a different language. If you put enough attention into it, it will happen. It is, to a large extent, an issue of priorities, time, and motivation.
What language are you learning this year?