Can Bicycles Make Us Bilingual?

YES, say four researchers from universities in China, Thailand and Italy.

More precisely, the study they conducted on Chinese university students in the throes of learning beginner-level English showed that the students who studied while pedaling stationary bikes did significantly better than their counterparts who studied while merely stationary, sitting at their desks.

Wheel of linguistic fortune

What’s more, the researchers reported, “effects were present even when tested after a month.” Along the lines of the adage about how you never forget how to ride a bike once you learn, the “bicycling bilinguals” of the study remembered more of the English they learned after a month had passed than their cycle-less counterparts did.

It wasn’t just vocabulary that they were better at. The cyclists were also well in front when it came to spinning sentences together.

Cognition ignition

The researchers reported their findings in the peer-reviewed Public Library of Science journal devoted to cognitive neuroscience, in 2017. In the past few years, lots of studies have linked physical activity to stronger mental acuity: body exercise helps our brains exercise.

While something as benign but effective as walking can reap benefits, bringing bicycles into the mix offers another way to keep our eye on the prize of L2, or second language, learning. (And burning some calories while we do it.)

A virtuous cycle

Most of us learned how to ride a bike when we were kids. (Leo Tolstoy is a notable exception—he was 67.) Too bad more of us didn’t become as agile then in speaking another language as we were in maneuvering our bikes.

But we can take heart now, knowing that putting our pedal to the mettle of L2 learning is another way to become more proficient. We can also take comfort of sorts in the observation of Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour de France champion, who said of cycle racing that “it never gets easier, you just get faster.” L2 learning may not get easier, but eventually, we do start to say the words and sentences faster.

Mim Harrison