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How Learning A Language Benefits Your Brain

This is your brain on a new language.

By Y Yates

Learning a new language can feel like performing magic. Suddenly, a whole other world opens up, your perspective widens, and you discover a completely new side of life. Of course, learning a language doesn’t happen through sorcery, but rather through study. But the effects this studying has on our brain is nothing short of magical. Here are some highlights about how the brain changes during language learning:

Growing The Brain

It sounds like something a child may ask: does learning new things make my brain grow bigger? It turns out, this is what language learning does to the brain.

Researchers from Lund University in Sweden studied a group of students from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy. The young recruits go through a rigorous language learning program, which offered the researchers a rare opportunity to study how rapid language learning affects the brain. For a control group, the researchers selected students who were studying medicine and cognitive science at Umeå University. The idea was to find students who were studying as hard as the language learners were, but in a different subject.

Both groups were given MRI scans at the beginning of their studies, and again after three months. The researchers discovered that brain structure changed only in the language learning group. Specifically, the areas that grew were the hippocampus — the brain structure involved in memory and emotion — as well as three areas in the cerebral cortex. The results suggest that language learning is a promising way to keep the brain in shape, and offers enhanced cognitive benefits that exceed other forms of study.

Tuning Out Distractions

Many of us dream of being able to focus better, and according to a study published in the journal Brain and Language, learning a new language could help make that dream come true.

Researchers from Northwestern University used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to test co-activation and inhibition. Co-activation in bilingual individuals means that both languages are active at the same time, and inhibition refers to the ability to select the correct language.

The researchers tested bilingual and monolingual individuals using a language comprehension task. The task involved listening to a word, and then selecting the corresponding image from a group of four. It sounds simple, but the trick was that each group had a "competitor" word added to it, which is a word that sounds similar to the target word. For example, "candy" versus "candle."

Bilingual participants were better at filtering out the competitor words. The fMRI revealed that monolingual participants showed more activity in the inhibitory control regions of the brain, meaning they had to work harder to complete the task.

According to the researchers, the study shows that being bilingual comes with two cognitive advantages. The first is the ability to filter out unnecessary information, which is key to increasing focus. The second is that being bilingual is like constantly doing a puzzle because the brain is always switching between two languages. This means you’re exercising your brain even without actively doing anything. Now if only we could discover the equivalent for the rest of the body.

Delaying Alzheimer’s Disease And Dementia

Just like exercising your body, providing your brain with a workout has considerable health benefits. Several studies have shown a link between being bilingual and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by an average of four years. The reason for this delay, the researchers believe, is that learning a language challenges our gray cells, which helps prevent them from degenerating.

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