The Brain Benefits of Learning a Second Language

learn a languageBy Deane Alban

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

The proven benefits of learning a second language include improvements in intelligence, memory, and concentration and lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Understanding language is one of the hardest things your brain does. The benefits of learning a second language seem, in fact, to be proportional to the effort expended by the brain. Because language is complex, speaking or learning a foreign language gives your brain a good workout. It’s good brain exercise that makes the brain stronger.

It’s hard to believe now, but at one time raising children in a bilingual home was believed to stunt their intellectual growth. (1) Experts thought their brains would become confused and that it might even contribute to schizophrenia or split identities. But times have changed. We now understand that precisely the opposite is true. It’s now known that learning another language is one of the most effective and practical ways to increase intelligence, keep your mind sharp, and buffer your brain against aging. Here are the ways that speaking or learning a second language can benefit your brain, no matter your age.

Being Bilingual Improves Cognitive Skills and Overall Brain Function

A lot of research has been done on the effects of learning and speaking languages. People who speak two or more languages have significantly better overall cognitive abilities than those who speak one. (2)

Compared to people that speak one language, adults who speak multiple languages experience improvements in:

  • general intelligence (3)
  • perceptivity to surroundings and focus (4)
  • standardized test scores especially in math, reading, and vocabulary (5)
  • remembering lists or sequences (6)
  • planning and decision making (7)
  • ability to switch back and forth between tasks (8)
  • ability to control impulses (9)
  • understanding others’ points of view (10)
  • focus, concentration, and attention (11)
  • memory and memorization skills, including better working memory (12, 13)
  • mental flexibility and ability to adapt to changing circumstances (14)
  • creativity (15)
  • listening skills (16)

Learning a New Language Increases Brain Size and Connectivity

Learning a foreign language can increase the size of the brain’s language center and the hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for forming, storing and retrieving memories. (17)

In one Swedish study, young military recruits were taught new languages. By measuring their brains before and after the language training, researchers had a unique opportunity to observe what happens to the brain when learning a second language. MRI brain scans showed that study participants increased the size of their hippocampus. (18)

Studying a new language can also increase the number of neural pathways between parts of the brain. In another study, English speakers’ brains were monitored as learned the Chinese vocabulary. MRIs revealed that they developed better connectivity between different regions of their brains. (19)

Besides changes in brain function, there were also detectable changes in brain structure after six weeks. This structural change was apparent even in the elderly, leading researchers to conclude that brain plasticity — the brain’s ability to constantly change and grow — is greater than previously realized.

Knowing More Than One Language Protects Your Brain Against Aging

Knowing a second language can postpone the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s by 4.5 years. (20) This is significantly better than the best Alzheimer’s drugs which can only delay symptoms by 6-12 months. (21) Brains scans found a noticeable difference in brain activity of bilingual seniors. Their brains worked much more efficiently, more like those of young adults. (22) Scientists believe these seniors’ brains have more reserve brain power that helps compensate for age-related memory loss.

Interestingly, there is no correlation between the benefits of speaking two languages and literacy. There’s always been a question whether bilinguals stay mentally sharp due to overall better education, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Bilinguals who cannot read and write experience the same protective benefits against dementia as literate bilinguals. (23)

If knowing two languages is good for your brain, is knowing three or more even better? It looks like that’s the case. There is evidence that being multilingual offers even further protective benefits for the brain. (24)

Bilingualism and Young Brains

It was once believed that children raised in bilingual households performed worse academically. It was thought that hearing two languages would confuse them and result in developmental delays. While some studies suggest learning two languages simultaneously can lead to delays in language milestones, these delays are temporary. These children catch up by the time they are three years old.(25) Children who are multilingual experience brain benefits early on.(26) Numerous studies have revealed that children who study a foreign language receive a boost in overall cognitive development, do better on standardized tests, are more creative, and have better self-esteem and sense of achievement in school.

Learn a Second Language — Three Words at a Time

If you don’t already know a second language, it’s never too late to learn. Whether you learn a new language as a child or later in adulthood doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to staying mentally sharp for life. (27) Using an additional language you already know boosts your brain power — and so does the process of learning a new language. You may feel that learning a language now is going to be too hard, or hardly worth the effort. But you don’t have to be fluent to experience brain benefits or be culturally enriched. Even minimal knowledge of a second language can help. (28) Just look at what you could accomplish with minimal effort if you decided to learn just three words per day. Besides giving your brain a small workout you’ll be building your new vocabulary.

It’s been said that the 100 most commonly used words of any language comprise 50% of the words used in day-to-day conversation. And that 100 core words is what you need to be minimally functional when it comes to conversing with others that speak that language. Google “learn 100 core words” and you’ll find a series of free online lessons that teach 100 core words in numerous languages. At three words per day, you can accomplish that in three months. Then why not keep the momentum going? The top 1,000 words comprise 89% of everyday writing in that language. (29) At three words per day, you can become nearly proficient in reading in less than a year.

Your brain thrives on getting out of your routine and learning things that are new and complex. Learning a new language definitely fits this criteria. Millions of people engage in activities like playing brain games or doing Sudoku to keep mentally sharp. But we believe learning a second language is a much more practical and rewarding use of your time. Learning a new language can broaden your horizons in many ways. Having another language under your belt is a great career move. It will make you more employable and increase your bottom line. It enhances cultural experiences when you travel. You’ll feel more confident. You’ll meet more people and have more fun. It opens up a whole world of options regarding where you can comfortably work, live, or retire. Plus, it will keep your brain fit and healthy so you can enjoy it all.

Article references:

  1. washingtonpost.com/raising-bilingual-children-experts-now-say-its-beneficial
  2. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_advantages_of_bilingualism
  3. bbc.com/news/health-27634990
  4. brainglot.upf.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=35
  5. psychology.illinoisstate.edu/cbs/readings/BialystokMartin.pdf
  6. unbf.ca/L2/Research/current/documents/L2RIC_Notes_Jan09SLA_and_cognition.pdf
  7. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001002771300228X
  8. theatlantic.com/health/archive/more-languages-better-brain
  9. blog.lumosity.com/bilingualism/
  10. psycnet.apa.org/journals/xlm/38/1/211/
  11. psychologytoday.com/blog/radical-teaching/201211/bilingual-brains-smarter-faster
  12. brainblogger.com/bilingualism-may-be-neuroprotective
  13. dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2012.09.002
  14. jneurosci.org/content/33/2/387
  15. psychologytoday.com/blog/attention-training/201405/being-bilingual-sparks-creativity
  16. dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1201575109
  17. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811912006581
  18. sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121008082953
  19. psu.edu/story/research/learning-languages-workout-brains-both-young-and-old
  20. neurology.org/content/early/2013/11/06/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4
  21. alz.org/alzheimers_disease_standard_prescriptions
  22. npr.org/blogs/speaking-more-than-one-language-could-prevent-alzheimers
  23. medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268416
  24. sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110222162304
  25. brainblogger.com/bringing-up-bilingual-toddlers
  26. globallanguageproject.org/about_why
  27. mentalfloss.com/learning-second-language-adult-keeps-your-brain-young
  28. medicaldaily.com/bilingual-benefits
  29. lingholic.com/how-many-words-do-i-need-to-know-the-955-rule-in-language-learning

Previous articles by Deane:

About the author:deane alban

Deane Alban holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years. Her current focus is helping people overcome brain fog, “senior moments”, and other signs of mental decline now, and preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia in the future.

The human brain is designed to last a lifetime, but modern life takes a greater toll on the brain than most people realize. Deane teaches the best ways to keep your brain healthy and stay mentally sharp for life at her website BeBrainFit.com.

 


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  • W8post

    “Learning a foreign language can increase the size of the brain’s language center and the hippocampus ” the problem being that I haven’t got space left in my skull for more languages…I really need a brain-wave!