My ex-husband’s father is from Peru.  So when we were engaged, we had a big party in Peru. I was shocked to see that my husband never learned Spanish, so he couldn’t talk to anyone. I had already learned French and a little bit of Hebrew and German, so it was not difficult to teach myself a little bit of Spanish before the trip.

I gave a speech in Spanish and I talked to people in Spanish. And it was fun. Learning a new language is fun for me. (Interesting side note: most people with Aspergers are good with a second language. It’s all about memorizing rules—our favorite type of conversation!)

My son got the book Thing Explainer  for his birthday. I’ve been reading it. It was created by a former rocket scientist from NASA who was fascinated by how people use specialized language. And how doing so makes complicated things seem more complicated. But if you know a lot about a topic, you are able to explain it in very simple language. (Which explains why it’s great interview and resume advice to not use jargon when you answer questions.)

So he wrote about all sorts of things, like rocket ships, sewage systems and cell biology, using only the most common 1000 words in the English language. The first thing I noticed while reading the book is that in the most common 1000 words, most are verbs. Nouns are specialized words and verbs are more generalized. This is why the author talks about how things work vs what things are called. The second thing I noticed is that if you have not learned a language before, you don’t quite understand the concept of making up sentences with words you know instead of fretting over words you don’t know.

My ex, who is at our house a lot, picked up the book, and I said, “That would really help you to learn Spanish.”

He said, “That ship has sailed.”

(If you used only the most common 1000 words you would say “That boat has gone.” Idioms are the last thing people learn when they learn a language, and the book makes it clear why.)

Okay. So my Ex is never going to learn Spanish. But my Ex was so good in school that he went to college at 16. He plays piano. And he was in the national boys choir. Which is better? Music? Language? Math?

I’m thinking it doesn’t matter if someone knows a second language. Not because it’s not helpful to brain development. It is.  But it’s an ill-defined requirement for those desperate to be “well rounded”.

The benefits of a second language are mostly in the brain—the brain develops a different way if you learn a second language as a kid. But there are many other ways to get this same brain benefit (like learning to play a musical instrument at a young age). So it doesn’t make sense that we favor kids learning a language instead of, for example, playing an instrument.

Moreover, we know that after age 8 the aptitude for this sort of learning plummets because brain plasticity plummets. Schools have no way to teach language or a musical instrument before age 8 (except in special circumstances) because it requires so much compliance at home. So, ironically, the best way to do this sort of teaching is via homeschooling.

Luckily for the people who are not interested in translating “sewage plant” to “water cleaner,” there are lots of ways to make your brain stretch and build new connections. There is, in fact, a world of don’t-get-Alzheimer’s data that might be as beneficial to brain fitness as learning a second language if you are older than eight.

My Ex has spent his life going to Peru to visit family. Since he didn’t speak the language, he looked around a lot, and has a keen sense of geography, which is a boon for brain development when it comes to spatial thinking. No one can be well-rounded because there’s too much to learn. But probably spatial thinking and musical thinking are equally useful compared to linguistic thinking.

Probably those second-language mavens are making those tradeoffs as well. Just the other way around.