How Learning new languages affects your brain
We’re all aware that learning a new language has several advantages. Languages open doors to other cultures, allowing us to engage with people from all over the world in more meaningful ways than previously. Learning a new language, on the other hand, offers physical health advantages. Let’s look at some of the most recent research on how learning a new language affects the human brain.
Anyone with serious experience in learning a new language knows that some of the practical skills gained from learning a second language include improved conversational abilities, a greater mastery of languages in general (including the learner’s native language), better study skills, greater discipline, and enhanced concentration and focus, even without the use of x-rays and MRI scans.
In the Huffington Post, Dan Roitman of Pimsleur says, “As a language student, you’ll not only become a more aware thinker and listener who can speak effectively and think creatively, but you’ll also acquire the most major advantage of multilingualism: a larger, more global viewpoint.”
Is this due to a scientific reason? Bilingual speakers may benefit from the necessity to juggle two languages at once and switch between them—in essence, managing two distinct modes of thinking—leading to improved job and conflict management. Adults who are bilingual have greater concentration and are better at avoiding distracting stimuli than those who only speak one language.
In another piece on the site, Roitman says, “Because the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language may build new parts of your mind and enhance your brain’s natural capacity to focus, entertain numerous alternatives, and analyze information.”
Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer at Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, conducted a study that supports the above assertion. He conducted his set of tests after seeing cases of dementia emerge later in people who understood two languages rather than simply one in India.
Bak evaluated 853 volunteers, all of whom were 11 years old, in his most famous research in 1947. When they were in their early 70s, they were retested in 2008 and 2010. He discovered that individuals who were multilingual fared better than predicted (the baseline score utilized early childhood exams to predict performance—if they did poorly at 11, they were likely to do poorly at 73). The findings indicated that learning a new language in adulthood still has benefits, indicating that there’s no reason to think you’re too old to benefit from learning a new language.
“Researchers discovered that young adults who spoke two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language, regardless of whether the second language was learned during childhood, adolescence, or adolescence,” writes Christopher Wanjek of Live Science.
Another Swedish research illustrated the advantages of learning a new language on the human brain. Swedish researchers investigated two groups of scholars: one who studied languages and the other who studied non-linguistic areas with similar zeal. MRI scans revealed that the brains of people learning languages grew larger, whereas the brains of the other group maintained the same size. The hippocampus and regions of the cerebral cortex, which are associated with language skills, grew the most.
“Even though we cannot compare three months of rigorous language study with a lifetime of being multilingual,” said Johan Mrtensson, a psychologist at Lund University in Sweden, “there is a lot to suggest that studying languages is a healthy method to keep the brain in shape,” according to Medical News Today.
According to Alison Mackey of The Guardian, “looking at functional MRI brain scans can also tell us what regions of the brain are engaged during a given learning activity.” This is important for figuring out why native speakers of one language have trouble vocalizing particular sounds in another (the example in the above article cites the differences between Japanese and English speakers). Knowing the brain mechanisms behind vocalization can enable instructors incorporate valuable visual aids to assist students say “Rob Roy” without the “l” sound, for example.
These research are all promising, but don’t hold your breath for any cutting-edge apps just yet. Simply keep the advantages of learning a new language in mind while you study, knowing that you’re not only acquiring a valuable new skill, but you’re also boosting your mental health fundamentally and physically.