Scientists Say that Learning Languages Improves Brain Functions

People learn languages mostly for practical reasons. They need the foreign language for work or travel. Before their summer vacation in France, they install an app and start hastily learning to start hastily learning enough to cover the basics. When their company expands internationally,  they learn foreign languages so they can communicate with potential partners and clients. 

What happened with learning for the sake of learning?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student, an employee or a retired person. You want to keep your mind active and you want to absorb new knowledge in the most efficient way possible. If you’re looking at meditation, nutrition, and other techniques to help you learn faster, studying a new language is an important method to consider. 

About the Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language

When talking about the benefits of being bilingual, we usually focus on children. They are more receptive to foreign languages and don’t have serious problems in pronouncing new words. But research shows that people from all ages can benefit from learning a second language. 

In 2013, researchers from the University of Edinburgh published the results of a large study (1) making a link between bilingualism and the progress of cognitive diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. They found that bilingualism delayed the development of dementia for 4.5 years on average. This effect was independent on immigration, rural/urban dwelling, and education status, which made it clear that speaking a second language improves one’s cognitive functions. 

How can we clarify the link between language and brain development? To achieve fluency in a foreign language, regardless of the method or the reasons for learning it, requires a significant amount of time. In some cases the language learning process occurs naturally, through immersion. But even in that situation, speaking a second language is based on a complex processes, requiring the mastering of the sound system, mastering the sound system, remembering words, learning grammar, and picking up dialects. To make those efforts, the learner activates various regions of the brain, so they can transfer and integrate information between them. 

Learning a New Language Activates the Entire Brain

The right brain, in particular plays a crucial role in helping the learner to identify basic sounds from a foreign language. Researchers from the University of Delaware (2) found that although the left hemisphere is considered to be the part of the brain that supports language-learning processes, it’s the right hemisphere that determines the success of the process. They observed 24 Americans who went through one month of intensive instructions in Mandarin Chinese, trying to learn the language from scratch. 

They confirmed what scientists already knew: the left hemisphere of the brain was the center of the language learning process. However, before processing grammar and vocabulary, the learners must first identify the phonological elements of the language. During this sound processing, the right side of the brain plays a critical role. Through brain imaging, the researchers found that the learners with a more active hemisphere were more sensitive to acoustic differences in sounds. 

 (1) Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. https://n.neurology.org/content/81/22/1938
(2) Learning language: New insights into how brain functions. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190508093716.htm
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You see? If you only spend a month intensively learning Mandarin Chinese, you’re already getting smarter. It’s not just about the new words and sounds you learn. It’s about activating your entire brain and keeping it vital. This is especially important as you’re getting older.

They confirmed what scientists already knew: the left hemisphere of the brain was the center of the language learning process. However, before processing grammar and vocabulary, the learners must first identify the phonological elements of the language. During this sound processing, the right side of the brain plays a critical role. Through brain imaging, the researchers found that the learners with a more active hemisphere were more sensitive to acoustic differences in sounds. 

You see? If you only spend a month intensively learning Mandarin Chinese, you’re already getting smarter. It’s not just about the new words and sounds you learn. It’s about activating your entire brain and keeping it vital. This is especially important as you’re getting older.

Bilingual Babies Have a Phonetic Processing Advantage

Parents in bilingual families are often afraid that speaking two languages in front of their babies will only confuse them. When they start speaking, the babies won’t be able to distinguish between the two languages,   and meaning they won’t be able to express themselves clearly in any of them. That’s a false assumption. In fact, bilingual babies have superior neural activity when processing completely unfamiliar languages. 

Researchers (3) found that monolingual and bilingual babies processed phonetics with the same language-specific brain areas in the left inferior frontal cortex and the left superior temporal gyrus. The developmental timing difference, however, was highly noticeable. Older bilingual babies were more sensitive to foreign languages, whereas monolingual babies couldn’t hear a difference. Laura An Petitto, cognitive neuroscientist from Gallaudet University, was one of the researchers who conducted this study. She made this statement for The Washington Post: “It’s almost like the monolingual brain is on a diet, but the bilingual brain shows us the full, plump borders of the language tissue that are available.”

(3) The “Perceptual Wedge Hypothesis” as the basis for bilingual babies’ phonetic processing advantage: New insights from fNIRS brain imaging. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0093934X11001027
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Young brains benefit the most by being exposed to multiple languages. Children find it easy to learn additional languages, since their brain is very capable to form new neural connections. Although some children may show delays in language milestones as a result of simultaneous exposure to two languages, that effect is temporary. Babies start benefiting from being raised in bilingual homes from 7 months old (4). Later on, they show superior results in creative projects, standardized tests, and overall cognitive development.

(4) The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2012/The_Cognitive_Benefits_of_Being_Bilingual/
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To Conclude: How Does Learning a New Language Affect the Brain?

Learning a foreign language improves your brain’s functions regardless of academic level, gender, race, or social background. 

You probably knew that a second language makes you feel more self-confident. When communicating with foreigners, you certainly feel good when you could say something in their native language. But learning a new language activates your brain, too. It literally makes you smarter, and researchers have proven that by monitoring the brain’s activity in learners from different ages. 

Do you need more motivation? Everyone aims to personal growth throughout life. Learning a second language contributes to that process. 


BIO: Michael Turner dedicated his life to learning foreign languages and understanding foreign cultures. His work as a remote writer and editor for EduBirdie gives him enough independence to travel the world.