What happens to your brain when learning a language?

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What happens to your brain when learning a language?
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What happens to your brain when learning a language?

We have known for a long time that learning a foreign language is beneficial in many ways.  Not just for the pleasure and pride that come with being able to communicate in another language with people from a different culture.  It is also the satisfaction of having learnt something practical that we can put into practice in many different situations.  For example, travelling, making friends etc  

You also improve your communication skills, build new relationships and enjoy travelling so much more when you can speak the language.  But how does learning a language have such a positive effect on us?  To understand this we need to understand what happens in our brain when we are speaking both our native language and a foreign language.  First, let’s look at where where language functions are located in your brain.  


Parts of the brain involved in language processes are:

Where languages live in the brain

Broca's area, located in the left frontal lobe, is responsible for speech production and articulation and this is also the area responsible for the production of our native language.
Wernicke's area, in the left temporal lobe, is also associated with language development and comprehension.

However, we now know that many areas of the brain are involved in language production:
Numerous regions in every major lobe (frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes; and the cerebellum, an area at the bottom of the brain) are involved in our ability to produce and comprehend language.

Language learning is a complex procedure which involves both hemispheres of the brain , the right and the left, and in particular information exchange between the two sides of the brain.

Speaking a language requires us to have knowledge of words (lexis), learning the sound system (phonology), being able to write it (orthography), understanding the grammar (syntax), understanding meaning (semantics)  and understanding different ways of expressing ourselves (pragmatics).  Each of these linguistic elements activates a different part in the brain, for example parts of your frontal, temporal and parietal lobes formulate what you want to say and the motor cortex, in your frontal lobe, allows you to say the words.

In addition to this complexity, where you store your second language depends on the age you learnt it.  If you learnt it as a child it will be stored with your mother tongue but if you learnt a second language later, it will be stored in a different part of the brain.  So the brain stores languages in different places depending on the age at which you learnt the second/third language.  What is interesting here is the structures involved in language acquisition and language processing are clearly flexible and adapt when you learn a new language.  

As the brain adapts to new languages it increases in size and becomes stronger, much like exercising your body.  The structure of the brain is altered and certain functions are improved and the white and gray matter, where neurons and synapses are stored, increases.

In summary, learning a foreign language results in a number of changes in the brain which provide us with improved problem solving abilities, an enhanced ability to switch between tasks and focus while disregarding irrelevant information.  

When you read, listen to someone speaking, or speak yourself a network of thousands of neurons is activated in your brain.  For example, when we read we pay attention to the individual letters, the whole word, the meaning and the sound form.  When we listen to someone speaking we do an acoustic analysis of the sound, we recognise the sounds, then we recognise the word and then understand the meaning.

When speaking we choose the meaning, we select the sound form, we make syllables and then we articulate the sounds to produce the word.  This diagram shows the process of reading or listening and which parts of the brain are activated. It’s a very simple diagram but it gives you an idea.

Simplified model of language processing in the brain


Why learning a foreign language is so challenging and rewarding

When we learn a foreign language we ask new parts of our brain to work.  Our native language is usually in the left hemisphere of the brain but a foreign language activates other parts of the brain in the right hemisphere so your brain works much harder at new tasks when speaking a foreign language.  It is not surprising, therefore, that it is so challenging.

The very beginning is often the most difficult part as there seems to be so much to learn, it seems insurmountable.   This is because the different parts of your brain required to speak the new language are doing a new job.  You are asking your brain to do something new so it’s not surprising it’s finding it challenging and is sometimes a little slow!  To activate these parts of the brain you need to keep asking it to use the language, to ‘exercise’ by using the new language as much as possible.  

Other challenges include learning thousands of new words and then remembering them when you need them.  Or, the grammar may be very different from your native language grammar.

Have you ever tried chatting with a native speaker of the language you are learning?  When you have a vocabulary of a few hundred words (and that’s a lot) and you want to practice with native speakers…. this can often be very challenging as native speakers speak quickly and often have accents particular to their country or region.

In addition to these cognitive tasks, it can be difficult to find time to study.  However,  consistency and routine  in your study habits are key to achieving your goal so make sure you devote time every day to the new language until it becomes a habit and enjoy the challenges as they will bring major benefits to you on a cognitive level.


The major benefits of learning a foreign language

There are numerous benefits of learning a foreign language, too many to mention here so I’ve chosen the ones I think are most important to us as language learners and life-long learners in general.

  • You will get to meet new people and this will help you to improve your language, it will boost  your self-confidence and allow you to find out about the culture, traditions etc.
  • It will improve your career prospects, speaking a second or third language is highly sought after.
  • Travelling is so much easier if you speak the language of the country you are visiting.  Even if you don’t English is the most widely spoken second language in the world.  1.5 billion people speak English — that's 20% of the Earth's population. However, most of those people aren't native English speakers, so you will definitely find someone to talk to in English.
  • A third or fourth language is much easier to learn once you have introduced your brain to the foreign language learning process.  As you are using the same parts of your brain with a third and fourth language, the process is not entirely new and your brain will work more efficiently as it will remember the processes from when you were learning your second language.

Why learning a foreign language is good for your brain

Learning another language is one of the most effective and practical ways to increase intelligence, keep your mind sharp, and protect your brain against aging.  Learning a second language offers proven benefits for intelligence, memory, and concentration and lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Overall learning a foreign language improves cognition, thinking skills and memory abilities.

A 2014 study in Scotland suggested that being bilingual had a positive impact on cognition “... including later onset of dementia” (Hak et al, 2014)

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh carried out the most important study ever about the link between bilingualism and the progression of dementia.  The study found that bilingual people were less likely to develop dementia than those who only spoke one language and of those who did develop dementia, bilingual people did so 4 years later than their monolingual counterparts.  Bilinguals in this study were not considered as people who spoke two languages from childhood, rather they were defined as individuals who had learned another language at some point in their lives and who were able to communicated in that language.  So you don’t have to be native speaker like fluent and accurate to be considered bilingual.

The same 2014 study found that young adults proficient in two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language, irrespective of whether they had learned that second language during infancy, childhood or their teen years.

A study in Sweden: MRI scans showed that the brains of the participants studying languages increased in size.  “Using MRI scans, they discovered that the brains of the participants studying languages increased in size, while the brain sizes of the other group remained the same. Growth was primarily in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex, parts of the brain related to language skills.” (Mårtensson et al, 2012).

Studying a foreign language improves higher order, abstract and creative thinking (Hakuta, 1986) and many studies indicate that learners of a foreign language are more creative and are better at solving complex problems than those who do not study a foreign language. (Bamford & Mizokawa, 1991)

A further Study in Italy indicated that infants raised with two languages from birth displayed improved cognitive control abilities compared to their monolingual counterparts (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009).  As noted earlier, these changes to the brain are like exercising for the body.  The larger your brain and the stronger it is the more you can do.  

To sum up, bilingual students concentrate better, ignoring distractions more effectively than those who only speak one language.  The younger we start learning a foreign language the more positive effect it has on us.  And the positive effects themselves created further positive effects.  Since we know that knowledge of a second language improves cognitive abilities, memory, problem solving and makes us more tolerant of other cultures,  these cumulative effects result in higher chances of university acceptance, achievement and attainment and subsequently, this has an overall positive effect on career opportunities.

So if you are learning a second, third or fourth language, keep going as the benefits will keep your brain fitter and more active longer and these benefits will last as long as you do!

References

Bamford, K, W.; Mizokawa, D. T. (1991) Cognitive and Language Development in an Additive-Bilingual Program: Report after Four Observations. American Research Association

Curtain, Helena & Carol Ann Dahlberg. (2004). Languages and Children: Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grades K-8. Third Edition. New York: Longman.

Hakuta, K., (1986) Cognitive Development of Bilingual Children,  Center for Language Education and Research.

Kovács, Ágnes Melinda and Mehler, Jacques, Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0811323106

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N.C., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg, L. & Lövdén, M. Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage, 2012; 63 (1): 240 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.043

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25+ years in education with a Phd in Education
Pauline Keith
25+ years in education with a Phd in Education
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