Learning a new language is a great way to open up communication with more people but can it also be a way to boost your brain power? According to Swedish scientists, all signs point to yes! They are using neuroscience and brain scans to better understand exactly how the brain changes when it’s learning a new language. This is good news for those who understand how difficult it can be to learn a new language, especially as an adult. In addition you may be doing your brain a favor that has a positive lasting effect.
How the Brain Can Change
During this study, Swedish researchers took one group of military recruits and had them intensively learn a variety of languages, including Russian and Arabic. The control group were medical students who also studied regularly, just not with language in particular. When MRI scans were done with each person in each group, the results showed that the brains for those in the learning group had changed. Parts of their brain had developed in size, specifically in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Both of these are related to language learning and are responsible for memory, reasoning, and visual processing. In the control group, the brains of the students did not see the same developments or changes.
The Advantages of Learning Another Language
While this study showed a lot of promise for anyone who has started to learn a new language, it’s not the only one that has been completed. Another study done by lecturer Dr. Thomas Bak found that those who learned a second language scored better on attention and concentration tests than those who could only speak one language. In a second study done by Bak and a colleague named Dr. Suvarna Alladi, they found that individuals in India who spoke more than one language were more likely to have delayed dementia than those who only spoke one.
Although both studies by Bak and colleagues who were also doctors and researchers were fairly small, he feels that they point to the fact that learning a new language can help improve cognitive function. He feels that this is likely due to the brain learning new processes where it has to switch back and forth to tune into more auditory information. This reasoning makes a lot of sense, because the second sound waves enter the ear, they turn into neural impulses. The brain then uses complex processes to identify the word and language that is being used. For those who are bilingual, the bran’s processes for this are generally strengthened, meaning they are able to process information at a much more rapid and efficient pace.
There have been a number of additional studies done over the years, not only looking at the brain after it has learned another language, but also looking at the skills that bilingual individuals have. Most of these have pointed to a number of benefits when compared to those who only speak one language. Some of the most common include:
- Better listening skills
- Ability to multi-task
- Better planning skills
- Scoring higher on tests
- Enhanced mental flexibility
- Better focus and concentration
- Higher intelligence in general
What Happens in the Brain When Learning a Language
Why is it so difficult for some people (mainly adults) to learn a new language? A recent study done by Joy Hirsch and researchers at Cornell University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to learn exactly this. They found that first and second languages are separated in a part of the brain named the “Broca’s Area”. Located in the frontal lobe, this is is responsible for helping move the mouth, tongue, and palate to form words. While both languages were spatially separated in this area, they were not as separated in the Wernicke’s Area, which is responsible for comprehension of language.
This suggest that the act of learning a second language may not be difficult because of the actual task of learning, but because of the motor skills that are required to move the mouth and tongue in new formations. This is a common reason why people can understand a language spoken but not actually speak it themselves. Fortunately with research like this, it’s becoming more clear what the proper method is to learn a new language outside of the optimal ages from 6 to 13. They point out that a combination of vocalization and listening can result in acquiring a second language much more efficiently because of the way the brain processes language.
Strengthening the Brain by Mastering a Second Language
Taking the time to learn a new language can be a great workout for your brain. While difficult, it can help lead to keeping your mind sharp, which may also contribute to preventing signs of aging in the future. Whether you’re a youth or a senior, mastering a new skill is a great way to see how powerful the mind really is. As you start the process, your brain’s language center will begin to increase as you pull more information about words, sounds, and pronunciation. The benefit of this is simply what it is: having more brain power.
What’s even more interesting is that learning another language can also increase the amount of neural pathways that exist between parts of your brain, which can help increase your focus, enhance memory, and make you feel more mentally “pulled-together”. Adults especially can benefit from this, as most people tend to feel like they steadily lose their memory as they get older.
If you feel like you don’t have the time or energy to do this, start small. Even a little bit of knowledge of another language can enhance your cognitive abilities and help sharpen your mind. A few words learned per week or even month can take you a long way and mean a thriving brain that continues helping you learn more in the future.