People learn a new language for all sorts of reasons – to work or study in another country, move abroad, or simply for pleasure. No matter the motivation, many students find that the experience of studying a new language enriches their lives. But did you also know a language changes your brain at a physical level?
Numerous studies have examined how learning a new language at different ages can make a difference to the way your brain works. Let’s take a look at how learning a second language affects your brain.
A neurological perspective on language learning
Bilingual people, who have learned two languages side by side from early childhood, have been studied by scientists for decades. They are keen to understand how speaking two languages fluently affects people on a cognitive level. And with the advent of MRI technology, researchers are now able to see on a very visual level the differences between monolingual brains and bilingual brains.
Everyone’s brain is made up of neurons, which have a cell body, and dendrites, which are the connections between neurons. This is what we call “grey matter.”
Bilingual people have more of these neurons and dendrites compared to people who speak only one language. This means that their gray matter is denser.
Bilingualism also has an impact on white matter – that is, a system of nerve fibers which connect all four lobes of the brain. This system coordinates communication between the different brain regions, helping your brain to learn and function.
Bilingual adults have increased white matter integrity compared to adults who only speak one language. Their second language experience actually boosts their brain’s reserves.
What about people who learn a language later on?
Students who are learning a second language later in life can still benefit from some of the neurological changes that happen to speakers of second languages, no matter what level they are at. Having new experiences (novelty) is an important factor in forming new connections in the brain and strengthening nervous system links. These links and connections are maintained through regular practice.
Studying a new language combines novelty with practice. For example, students learn new words and grammatical constructs and spend time reviewing and building on their previous knowledge as part of the learning process.
This combination is one of the reasons that language learning is such an effective brain workout and protects older learners against dementia and other degenerative neurological conditions.
But everyone can benefit from language learning. It is arguably one of the most complex mental activities you can do. So, it’s a powerful way to exercise your brain.
How language learning boosts other skills
Given the measurable impact of language learning on the brain, it’s no surprise that these physical changes are accompanied by the improvement of certain other skills such as communication, creativity, recall and concentration.
- Better academic performance
In a meta-analysis of 20 studies examining language learning and its impact on academic performance, the majority of studies (90%) showed that language learners perform better across a range of academic subjects than students who don’t study a second language. Learning another language also boosts literacy, which gives learners an advantage in core school subjects like mathematics and science.
- Improved concentration
Just one week of learning a new language has a positive impact on students’ levels of alertness and focus. This improvement was maintained with continuous language study of at least five hours a week.
Moreover, this study encompassed learners from the age of 18 to 78, and the improvement in attention span was noted across all age groups. So, studying a new language will boost students’ concentration, no matter what age they are.
- A more powerful memory
Studying a language engages memorization skills (learning new words and rules) as well as recall (producing new language in-class activities). So it’s no surprise that people who regularly use a second language have more powerful memories.
In fact, research shows that people who speak a second language regularly perform better on memory tests than monolingual people. It makes no difference whether they learned the language as a child or as an adult, either. What’s more, language learning improves both short term and long term memory,
- Stronger communication skills
Early studies on language learning found evidence that it boosted learners’ empathy. More recent research has found that empathy is a key trait for success in learning a second language.
Speaking a second language can help to improve students’ ability to see things from another perspective. In turn, this can have a positive impact on their communication skills.
In addition, the practice of academic skills involved in language study, such as active listening, can improve learners’ communication skills in their everyday lives.
- More creativity
Bilingual children exhibit more creativity in problem-solving and flexibility than their monolingual peers. The same holds true for learners of a second language.
Researchers across different studies have found that studying a language seems to unlock students’ creative abilities. This could be the result of the thought processes involved in language learning. These include translation, language switching and disciplined study, along with a willingness to learn and adapt.
Language learning skills will help learners in all areas of their lives, improving their mental abilities, and helping them with problem-solving and decision-making. Ultimately, this all goes towards enriching their personal, social and professional relationships.
So, whether you’re a learner or a teacher of other languages, you’re building skills, exercising your brain and building your cognitive reserves every time you speak a second language!
Read more on how the human brain has a way of learning, and adapt your teaching with this in mind.