Does learning a new language benefit your brain?
You might remember a few weeks ago we posted about how using your brain could help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease. This got us thinking, can using your brain to try new things, such as learning a language, have positive benefits for brain health?
If you're anything like us, you're probably already thinking about where you'd like to go on holiday this year (you might even have booked it and already started saving!) and if you're going abroad, you might learn a few words and phrases of the local language. Or perhaps you already speak French, German, Spanish or other languages; you might even be bilingual. But what benefits does leaning a new language have for your brain?
It increases your brain size
Leaning a foreign language can actually increase your brain size. Swedish scientists used MRI scans to monitor what happens in the brain when we learn a second (or third) language. A group of young military recruits were given the task of learning Arabic or Russian, whilst a control group of medical science students were set to work studying subjects other than languages. At the end of the experiment, MRI scans revealed that specific areas of the brain grew in those who studied languages. Also, interestingly, those with the best language skills experienced growth in the hippocampus and language learning areas of the cerebral cortex, whilst those who found language learning a challenge saw growth in the motor area of the cerebral cortex (1). But what does this mean? Well, your brain will grow and develop depending on how easy you find learning a new language, so everyone's brain will develop differently in response to learning.
Strengthening your brain
Everytime you learn something new, you're giving your brain a workout, much like the physical workout you get at the gym (or when you go for a run). Researchers at Penn State University carried out an experiment on native English speakers who were learning Mandarin - it's not an easy language! 39 volunteers had their brains scanned over a period of six weeks - half of the group were control subjects whilst the other half participated in intensive language lessons. Their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the scans revealed that the group who had studied languages displayed noticeable changes to their brains.
Their brains had become better integrated - neural networks were stronger, to allow for faster, more efficient learning. This was even more noticeable in those students who excelled at languages. Interestingly, the results also revealed that those who had learned a new language showed increased grey matter density and stronger white matter tissue (2). Grey matter is neural tissue which is associated with emotions, memory, muscle control and our senses (such as hearing and seeing). White matter's role is to connect the areas of grey matter together. So learning a new language can really help the different parts of your brain to communicate with each other.
Keeping your brain young
Whether you learn French, Spanish or Russian, learning a new language can also help to enlarge your hippocampus and cerebral cortex (3) - the hippocampus aids long-term memory formation. Researchers believe that having a larger cerebral cortex can help with memory loss and vision problems in old age, although more research is required for conclusive results.
New research carried out recently has shown that learning a new language can help to slow mental decline as we age (4), whilst studies in the past suggested that bilingual people show improved mental function as they age, and experience a later onset of dementia (5).
A study carried out at the University of Edinburgh provides strong evidence that learning a second language later in life can help to keep your brain young. The Lothian Birth Cohort Study (6) was carried out in 1947, when 1,100 11-year-old school children were given cognitive tests. At the time, all spoke only one language, but following the tests, many went on to learn a second, or third language as an adult. Language researcher Thomas Bak and his team tracked down 853 of the original test subjects, now in their early 70s, and discovered that around one-third had learned to speak a second language as adults, with 65 of those becoming bilingual.
The participants re-sat their original cognitive tests to allow their scores to be compared to those of their 11-year-old selves. The researchers predicted that those who had performed poorly all those years ago would still perform fairly poorly today, whilst those who had achieved high scores aged 11 would perform well. The results showed that those who had learned a new language as adults were able to perform better than predicted. This research is important as in the past it was believed that the best time to learn a new language was as a child - we now know that learning a second language as an older adult can benefit your brain.
What does it all mean?
Switching between two or more languages keeps your brain active and gives it a workout, as you're using a whole range of different mental functions. It's not yet clear whether our brains become stronger with each new language we learn, but there's no harm in learning as many languages as possible if you're planning on going travelling this year. Learning a new language can be incredibly fun, a great way to meet new people and then there are the brain benefits - we think anything that keeps your brain as active as your body must be good for you. So which language are you going to learn this spring?
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