Rocket Languages Blog How Are Languages Learned?

How Are Languages Learned?


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 Affect 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!


Another very interesting article. I especially related to this statement:

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.

I recall a couple of Spanish learners here who seemed to need a logical reason why a certain idea was expressed a certain way in Spanish, and just could not accept the fact that, just as in English, some things are just said the way they are, with no apparent rationale. One guy got really defensive when others pointed out to him that sometimes you just have to accept that things are expressed a certain way. Those people did not seem to stay with the program very long. 


Learning French is my workout for the brain.  I run and do yoga to workout my body.  I have always wanted to learn French and have been working on it for over 3 years now.  It is definitely a workout for my brain.

I also relate to the statement:
 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

I used to try to figure out exactly why something was said a particular way.  I just had to accept that sometimes it is the way it is because it sounds better, which is one of the beauties of the French language.


Excellent. Five more years of dementia free living...


...who are you again???...


Have I been gone from the forum awhile? Since I haven't noticed, I suspect that dementia has already set in...


Hola! This article is definitely very helpful! I have noticed a change in my ability to multitask since I started learning Spanish.


It is definitely amazing that just learning a new language can help the human brain so much. This article is amazing, thanks for sharing!


A very interesting blog. Thanks.


This article is what I needed! I was a bit tired on learning a new language in the last weeks and I gave up a little! Now it is time to go back to work! And we live in such a nice era, with all the resources that we could want that enter into our houses through the internet. Eventually, it's just matter of fighting our laziness which is probably what turns weak our muscles and minds!


Great article! I also think that being adult learning a new language is difficult because we don't want to mess up. Children will just repeat what they hear, and aren't embarrassed if they are wrong.

I also understand  many people's desires to learn the "Why?" behind certain phrases. I had some older English students who wanted to know why certain idioms or expressions used odd words, or why a grammar rule contradicted another one (to be fair, English has so many conflicting grammar rules). It's just something you have to accept, and I've tried to apply that mindset to Korean. It makes it much less stressful.   ^^

David K

Thanks for this encouraging article.  MRI research also shows that being multilingual, and learning new languages increases the size and functionality of the areas of the brain involve in "inhibition control" and executive function.

Researchers theorized that the brain has to develop extra neural connections so that speakers can keep the two languages separate while speaking.  Think for a moment about why you don't suddenly substitute words from one language to another in the middle of your sentences or paragraphs. 
The brain develops extra "inhibition control" neural circuits to prevent the other neural pathways from firing.
Interestingly enough, MRI studies of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes tend to show large deficits in these same areas of the brain.
Another more controversial line of research includes the use of certain medicinal supplements to increase brain plasticity an bolster the formation of memories to accelerate language learning, although there are great concerns about possible side-effects.

There are a number of  bogus groups marketing supplements for this purpose that people should be very cautious about as some have serious possible side-effects. But some day we may have FDA approved supplements that accelerate language learning.

I can definitely detect an improvement in my own cognitive function whenever I go on intense learning binges. 


I hate to put a negative spin on this thread but since I've been learning German I've noticed an absence of recalling certain words in English which really bugs me. Words that before would just roll off the tongue, now elude me on occasions.
Does anybody else experience this I wonder?


Grant: I have not suffered your particular problem, but I have noticed that when I am speaking Spanish and want to talk about a person (author, movie star, etc.) I sometimes draw a complete blank. I suspect that my brain is busy thinking how to say things in my target language, and cannot recall names that I otherwise would know without hesitation. My brain starts buffering, to use computer terminology. 


That's interesting Dan, just the other day I couldn't even think of the word "announcement" I couldn't believe it. It was just after a session of learning German in a variety of ways


I have read where people who are native bilingual will mix the two languages when speaking with other native bilinguals and cleanly separate the two when speaking with someone who only speaks one of the languages. That's not me.

After a week in Barcelona speaking only Spanish, I struggled talking with secretary (all the phrases coming to mind were in Spanish) and my French Skype partner (every third word I said was in Spanish and I was not even aware of it).

Often times my Skype partners in Spanish will ask me how to say an equivalent expression in English and I can't dig it out (except at a much later time after wracking my brain).

The mind is incredibly complicated. I find that speaking is like reaching into a bag and what comes out, comes out (or not as the case may be).


hy everyone

Mr Grant not only you get bugs on the track... sometimes i cant remember words in my native tongue thats portuguese. now i m studying arabic and i learned english already. long time back i was studying german in the university as well and now i have salad in my brain lol
dont give up


crisfreitas , thanks for the encouragement. We all need it that's for sure. You know, with German, lately I've felt like giving up because of some sentence structure/phrase I just don't get, frustration kicks in but I know I just have to accept certain things and let my brain go along with it. Yes Steven, the mind is truly remarkable/complicated.


I hope you can hang in there, Grant. When I was stationed in Egypt many years ago, I gave up trying to learn Arabic because of complicated sentence structures. I regret doing so as I would be fluent in Arabic now (albeit in a different dialect). German is a tough language to learn. I think we have it relatively easy in Rocket Spanish.


Thanks Steven, appreciate it!

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