How Learning a Language Increases Your Intelligence

Hello! Oi! Hola! Ni hao! Privetsvuyu!

Learning a second language has at least one obvious benefit — you can communicate with people from different corners of the globe. But in addition to greetings, chats and friendships, language learning has so much more to offer to us and our international neighbors.

Did you know language education can boost your intelligence, and not just in regards to spoken tongues? Here’s how it works.

1. Language Learning Boosts Gray Matter

The brain contains billions of neurons — the more you have, the more gray matter you possess. An increase in the latter shows the brain is healthy, and learning a new language adds to that. Language learning can also affect the organ’s white matter, a fatty substance that connects and protects all the neurons. White matter also facilitates communication throughout the brain to other parts of the body. Being bilingual helps keep white matter in tip-top shape, which maintains this communication at its best as we age.

2. Bilingualism Improves the Brain’s Control System

When a person reaches bilingualism — and uses both languages regularly — the brain can hone its control system. Namely, it has an easier time ignoring unimportant stimuli and improving memory. Bilingual people must balance two vocabularies in their head. When they have a conversation, they quickly eschew unnecessary words from one language and translate the core meaning to continue chatting in the tongue they’ve chosen — which requires strong memory skills.

Once the brain can ignore such unnecessary stimuli and remember words more clearly, it becomes better at other routine tasks. Specifically, an improvement in these two particular functions allows us to multi-task, pay attention more closely and produce higher-level thoughts. Altogether, those skills make us more intelligent.

These improved functions tend also come into play under pressure, according to a study shared by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In a normal situation, monolinguals and bilinguals tend to perform at a similar standard. But when we and our brains feel taxed, bilinguals can work more effectively than single-language speakers.

3. A New Language Sharpens Different Parts of the Brain

When we hear a new language, it fires off a series of reactions in the brain. First, the auditory cortex transforms what we hear into digestible information. Then, the Wernicke’s area of the brain pulls out the phrases and words. Once that’s processed, we have to figure out what to say back — this requires the Broca’s area to work. Finally, our motor cortex fires to open our mouths so we can speak and reply. And we can reap all these benefits with only a half-hour of language practice.

4. Bilingual People Process Language More Effectively

Some people falsely believe speaking to a baby in two languages will confuse them. They will pick up vocabulary from each tongue, but not enough to learn to speak in either. But this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

Research has revealed both monolingual and bilingual babies process language in the areas of the brain — the left inferior frontal cortex and the left superior temporal gyrus. Where they differ, however, is in the timing of their development. Babies exposed to two languages understand they’re hearing unique tongues in a way monolingual babies can’t.

In general, the sooner you introduce a baby to a new language, the better. Their brains will only continue to develop. If they start to learn multiple languages as this happens, they can easily form stronger neural connections. Perhaps that’s why bilingual children tend to be more creative, more successful in standardized testing and quicker in their cognitive development.

5. Language Learning Makes You a Better Problem-Solver

As previously mentioned, bilingualism offers us a slew of life-improving benefits. It helps us improve connections with people from across the world. It can open new career opportunities. And as it turns out, language learners can think more creatively when we face a problem.

Because we’ve already navigated the challenging path of learning a new language, we feel empowered to solve other problems in our lives. And with a healthy brain behind that thought process, we can be more creative and critical in resolving a complex issue.

Speak Up, Smarten Up

No matter the reason for your interest in learning a second language, it will transform your life — and not just through cultural enrichment. The language-learning process will sharpen your brain and boost its power to make you a better thinker all around — so start studying!


Alyssa Abel is an education blogger with a special interest in study abroad, language learning and cultural education. Read more of her work for students and educators on her blog, Syllabusy, connect with her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.