Does Moving Abroad Actually Make You Smarter?

Move Abroad… Become Smarter

Paul and I recently watched, with a few expat friends, the hit movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

We all chuckled at the trials and triumphs of older expats moving abroad. In the movie, India offers a colorful and exotic backdrop to personal dramas. The characters redefine themselves and choose how they want to live.

Moving overseas allows us exactly this privilege—to redefine ourselves. And the good news, from neuro-scientific studies, is that we fine-tune our brains and become more creative when we move abroad. According to a 2009 study on creativity in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The foreign sojourn has to be long enough to challenge your habitual ways of thinking and living. People who had lived abroad performed better on creative problems and tasks.”

Paul and I are now 67. We moved to Argentina when we were 31. In those days we wondered if we might be too old to learn Spanish. Still, we made an effort. We immersed ourselves in activities where very few people spoke English. We studied and struggled, studied and struggled, and studied and struggled some more. Eventually we reached the point where speaking Spanish became second nature. Whew.

I discovered that when I spoke, thought, and dreamed in Spanish the language changed some of my perceptions about myself, about others, and even about life. For example, I became more animated and outgoing when speaking in Spanish. I took on the Argentine attitude that one’s thoughts and philosophy mean more than how one earns money.

You could say that this shift in perception, during the four years Paul worked in Argentina, became a motivating factor in helping us make a radical change in our lifestyle. When we were only 35 years old, in 1984, we retired. We started traveling much more than before. We began to redefine ourselves, again, and to develop aspects of ourselves that had been lying dormant. For example, Paul learned to play the saxophone.

Paul and I moved to Paris when we were almost 50. Again we questioned whether we could become fluent in French. Once again I signed up for language classes, and we both found activities that would force us to express ourselves in French. Our new French friends had tremendous patience with us. We softened the effort of speaking French with our friends with scrumptious home-cooked cuisine, fine red wines, and lots of laughter.

Recent neurological studies show that you can learn a language at any age. In fact, “Learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds.” (The Brain That Changes by Norman Doidge, M.D., published by James H. Silberman Books in 2007.)

Now that Paul and I spend more time in Thailand, and head to China next month, I suppose the next two languages I should try to learn are tonal languages—Thai or even Chinese. Yikes!

Spending most of my adult life abroad has taught me that the four keys to learning a new language, and to changing old ways of thinking, are time, study, immersion, and laughter.

If you want to fine-tune your brain, engage your creativity, and redefine yourself: Move abroad.

Vicki Terhorst

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