How Learning a Language Benefits Your Brain
So, you want to know how learning a language benefits your brain? It simply opens many new opportunities. It can allow you to work abroad and explore a brand-new culture. This can be an exciting, life-changing experience. It also puts you at an advantage in the jobs market – and can even play a pivotal role in helping you achieve your ideal career path.
But as well as increasing opportunities for travel, living abroad, new relationships, and career growth, learning a language also benefits your brain in a variety of ways.
It’s no secret that learning a new language can be challenging and whilst getting to grips with being bilingual engages many brain regions; so, you are likely to notice improvements in your life. Ones that go far beyond reading, writing, and speaking in a foreign language.
Expanded brain size
According to a team of Swedish researchers, learning a foreign language increases the size of certain regions of the brain, including the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, both of which are related to language learning. The researchers found (using MRI scans) that participants studying a second language had increased brain growth, whereas another group learning non-linguistic subjects such as medicine and cognitive science had no signs of growth. Johan Mårtensson, an investigator in psychology at Lund University, Sweden, said:
Even if we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape.
The neuroscientist Thomas Bak states that learning a language is better for your brain than a game of Sudoku. This is because Sudoku is like going to the gym and only using one machine to repeat one movement. Learning a foreign language, in contrast, is more like using 20 machines and lots of different movements. More parts of your brain are being used and exercised.
Going back to the Swedish study, researchers discovered that language learners showed increases in the level of the brain’s grey matter, a substance that connects different areas of the brain together. And this increased connectivity helps to improve your higher mental functions, such as memory, thinking, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving.
The hippocampus and cerebral cortex, which grow when you learn a new language, also play an important role in memory. This makes sense. After all, when you learn a foreign language, you have to remember a completely new system of reading, writing, and speaking. It requires you to understand – and put into practice – new vocabulary, grammatical rules, and expressions.
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Protection against dementia
Canadian studies have suggested that Alzheimer’s and the onset of dementia happen later for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Knowing a second language could postpone a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by up to 4.5 years, which is much longer modern-day medicine which has only been able to achieve a delay of 6-12 months.
These results mean that learning a foreign language can help to keep you cognitively healthy as you age. Moreover, you can gain these benefits at whatever age you decide to learn a second language. You don’t have to become bilingual as a child in order to improve and protect your brain’s health and functioning.
Wide-ranging brain benefits
Learning a language has a huge amount of benefits. Bilingual adults are more likely to:
- Have higher intelligence
- Have superior overall cognitive abilities
- Be better at planning, prioritizing, decision-making and working on multiple projects at one time
- Score higher on standardized maths, reading and vocabulary tests
- Be more perceptive of their surroundings
- Have better focus, concentration and attention
- Delay immediate gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals
- Have better memory and memorization skills, including remembering lists, names and directions
- Exhibit mental flexibility
- Have a better understanding of their native language
- Be more creative
- Have good listening skills
This is clearly an extensive list of benefits. So if this information is motivating you to learn a new language, you may be wondering how best to get started. Well, here are some options that might appeal to you.
Learning a new language can be a challenging endeavour. While some foreign languages may be easier to learn than others (e.g. an English speaker will be more comfortable learning French, Spanish, or Italian than Mandarin), becoming fluent in a new language will still take a lot of time, effort, patience, and practice. Luckily, there are many different ways to effectively pick up a new language and improve your skills. You may want to:
- Connect with native speakers. You can do this by attending language meetups organised on Facebook
- Study the language abroad. Immersing yourself in the country for a long period of time is the best form of practice
- Carry a dictionary in the foreign language with you at all times
- Watch, listen, read, and write in the new language. Watching foreign TV shows and movies is a popular method for learning a second language
- Use online tools like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo
Most importantly, though, study your chosen language every day. Sticking to this daily habit is a reliable way to improve your cognition and, in turn, your ability to carry out all sorts of tasks. Try it out for yourself and see what benefits you notice.
Sam Woolfe writes for Inspiring Interns, the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency. He is particularly interested in self-development, psychology, mental health, and the future of work. Most of all, though, Sam is passionate about helping people find work that is meaningful and fulfilling. You can follow him Twitter find more of his work at www.samwoolfe.com.