My grandmother recently started learning Spanish. Now, every time we excitedly speak together, I try and see how much she remembers by asking her basic questions like "¿Cómo estás?" and "¿Cómo te llamas?" It's amazing how much she remembers, and I think it even surprises her.
"I feel like my brain is growing every time I practice!" she told me a few weeks ago. I'm no scientist, but I think she might be right.
Curious to find out a little more about how languages are learned and how learning a foreign language affects the brain, I decided to do a little research and uncover some of the science behind learning languages.
Language: Our Human Instinct
First of all, it's no secret that our first language naturally comes easier to us than a foreign language. Humans are born to learn language and instinctively begin picking it up as children. Even though language is something that we must learn, research has shown that the instinct to do so is present from birth. We intuitively learn to communicate with others by forming an understanding of the words and rules of our mother tongue, which later provides the template for our understanding of other languages.
After acquiring our first language, we learn all new languages in relation to the one that we first learned. That's why languages that are more similar to our native language come easier to us, and languages that are more different are more difficult and take longer to learn.
Foreign Languages and Adults
Since our brains are hard-wired to learn our first language, children are able to reach a higher language proficiency sooner than adults because their brains are more flexible to the new rules. Children's brains have a higher plasticity, meaning that they can better create new neurons and synapses, or connections between information.
It's not just a matter of flexible brains, however. How adults and children approach learning a language also has a large influence on how they learn a language. As several researchers have found, adults typically approach language learning with an adult problem-solving process, while children don't let the rules and logic limit their learning and simply absorb everything. Adults, therefore, typically progress through the earlier stages of language learning faster than children, but children find it easier to achieve a higher proficiency in a foreign language than adults.
Don't let that deter you, however. Not only can adults pick up the first stages of a language faster than children thanks to their logical approach, one study of second language pronunciation even found that some learners who started as adults scored just as well as native speakers on a pronunciation test.
Another study has also shown that bilinguals have an easier time learning a third language. If you became bilingual as a child, learning your third language may just seem naturally easier because your brain is already accustomed to making connections between words and structures. If you become bilingual as an adult, however, research has shown that learners who are literate in both of their languages and who possess meta-linguistic knowledge (knowledge about language and how it works) find learning a third language significantly easier.
The Effect of Language Learning on the Brain
Now that we've taken a brief look at how language learning changes in different stages of life, let's take a look at what exactly happens in your brain when you learn a new language.
A 2012 study in Sweden used MRI technology to scan the brains of its participants who were intensively studying either Arabic, Russian or Dari. The MRI scans showed that several parts of the students' brains actually grew in size while the brains of the control group remained the same size.
Not only did the students' brains grow, however, but they also grew in different areas depending on the students' language abilities. Learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex (areas commonly related to language learning) had better language skills than those whose motor region of the cerebral cortex expanded. In other words, the regions of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and their brains developed according to their performance.
MRI technology can also help to show which parts of the brain are active during specific tasks. Early language studies based on brain research and the "l" and "r" sounds showed that only a single region of Japanese speakers' brains is activated upon hearing both of these sounds, whereas two regions are activated in an English speaker's brain. This is because Japanese speakers do not distinguish between these two sounds.
Not only did this prove that language helps determine how our brains are wired, but language education also took its findings a step further and even developed a solution for Japanese speakers to learn to distinguish between the sounds.
The Benefits of Foreign Language Learning on the Brain
The use of technology has helped many researchers to study how language learning affects the brain, and the results have all been positive. An active, developing brain has not only been proven to grow in size, but also can bring some other benefits, including:
- A Sharper Mind
One study at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain revealed that multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings and spotting anything misleading, deceptive, or amiss. Learning a language involves increasing awareness, and this awareness also transfers to the rest of your life.
- Increased Multitasking Ability
Just as they can switch between two languages quickly, bilingual people can also switch between tasks quickly, according to a Pennsylvania State University study. People who speak more than one language show more cognitive flexibility and find it easier to adapt to unexpected situations.
- Improved Memory
Several Canadian studies have proven that bilinguals are better at retaining shopping lists, names and directions. Learning a language gives your memory a fantastic workout and trains your brain to recall information better and more quickly. It's a great way to improve your memory. After all, use it or lose it!
- A Delay in the Onset of Dementia
While we're on the topic of memory, why not also delay of the onset of Dementia or Alzheimer's for a bit longer? More and more studies have proven that being bilingual or multilingual helps delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease and Dementia for as many as five years. Yes, that's right: the effect of learning another language on dementia is even greater than any delay achievable with the most modern drugs.
- Better Decision Making
If one of your New Year's Resolutions is to waste less time comparing products in the grocery store, then learning a foreign language might be the answer to your indecision. According to a study from the University of Chicago, decision making is an easier process for multilingual people. After all, if your mind is accustomed to constantly choosing between several vocabulary options, then making other decisions will come easier, as well.
- Language Learning and Your Brain
An increasing number of studies have been dedicated to how languages are learned and how language learning affects the brain. The remarkable part is that nearly every study has proven that learning a language at any age is extremely beneficial for the brain, and can even cause the brain to physically increase in size. I guess my grandma was right: her brain really is growing as she studies Spanish!
So what are you waiting for? Start learning a new language today!
This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer. Please share to all ye faithful!