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February 2015

How does learning a new language improve your brain?

Learning a language has physical benefits on the brain. Find out what they are!

We all know there are great benefits to learning a new language. Languages are gateways to new cultures, allowing us to connect with others from different places around the world in ways more meaningful than before. But learning a new language has physical health benefits as well. Let’s take a look at some of the latest research on the effects of learning a new language on the human brain.

Even without the use of x-rays and MRI scans, anyone with serious experience in learning a new language knows that some of the practical skills gained from learning a second language include heightened 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.

“As a language learner, you'll not only become a more conscious thinker and listener who can communicate clearly and think creatively, but you'll also gain the most significant benefit of multilingualism: a broader, more global perspective,” writes Dan Roitman of Pimsleur in the Huffington Post.

Is there a scientific cause for this? The benefits may arise from the need for bilingual speakers to juggle two languages at once and the need to switch between them—in essence managing two separate ways of thinking—leading to better task and conflict management. Bilingual adults concentrate better, ignoring extraneous stimuli more effectively than those who only speak one language.

“Because the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain's natural ability to focus, entertain multiple possibilities, and process information,” Roitman writes in another post on the site.

A study conducted by Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer at Edinburgh's School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, backs up the above claim. Seeing cases for dementia in India develop later for those who knew two languages rather than just one led him to conduct his series of experiments.

In his most renowned study, Bak tested 853 participants in 1947, all of whom were 11 years of age. They were retested in 2008 and 2010, when they were in there early 70s. He found that those who became bilingual performed better than expected (the baseline score used the initial tests from childhood to predict performance—if they performed poorly at 11, they would likely perform poorly at 73). The results showed that learning a new language in adulthood still yields results, meaning there’s never a reason to feel too old to reap the cognitive benefits of learning a new language.

“Researchers found that young adults proficient in two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language, irrespective of whether they had learned that second language during infancy, childhood or their teen years,” writes Christopher Wanjek of Live Science.

Another study from Sweden helped visualize the benefits of learning a new language on the human brain. Swedish researchers conducted a study on two groups of scholars: one that studied languages and another that studied equally intensive non-linguistic subjects. Using MRI scans, they discovered that the brains of the participants studying languages increased in size, while the brain sizes of the other group remained the same. Growth was primarily in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex, parts of the brain related to language skills.

Said Johan Mårtensson, an investigator in psychology at Lund University, Sweden: "Even if we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape," reported Medical News Today.

“Looking at functional MRI brain scans can also tell us what parts of the brain are active during a specific learning task,” writes Alison Mackey in The Guardian. This is useful in discovering the meaning behind why native speakers of certain languages find it difficult to vocalize certain sounds in other languages (the example in the above article cites the differences between Japanese and English speakers). Knowing the brain mechanics behind vocalization can aid educators in including useful visual tools to help, for example, a Japanese student say, “Rob Roy” without the “l” sound.

All of these studies are promising, but don’t expect any cutting-edge apps just yet. Just keep the benefits of learning a new language in mind as you study, knowing that you’re not only learning an admirable new skill, you’re also fundamentally and physically improving your mental health.

What are some of the mental benefits you’ve experienced with learning a new language? Let us know on Facebook and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles about language learning tips and tools!