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.

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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


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