Learning New Languages Benefits the Brain

By: Jenna Savage

There are many ways to improve your brain’s memory and function, as we have reported in the past. Some activities that promote healthy brain activity include eating well, sleeping well, playing cognitive games, and exercising. However, those are not the only ways through which individuals can help their brains become stronger and more efficient. According to a research study published in NeuroImage, a scientific journal, it turns out that learning a new language can help an individual’s brain grow, reports PsychCentral.

Conducted by Lund University researchers, the study examined two sets of participants. The first group consisted of students from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy. These participants

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learned new languages of which they previously had no knowledge — such as Russian, Dari, and Arabic — with the ultimate goal of achieving fluency in 13 months. The second group, which was the control group, consisted of Lund University students who were studying medicine and cognitive science. These students participated in intensive academic activities, however they did not learn foreign languages as part of their curriculum.

To track the changes in their brains, the researchers gave each participant an MRI before the programs began, and then again after three months of intensive study. The results showed that over the three-month period, the medicine and cognitive science group of participants showed no change within the structures of their brains. Meanwhile, the language students’ brains did change over the three months. In particular, the hippocampus — the part of the brain that is responsible for learning new things — and areas within the cerebral cortex grew larger.

In addition, the growth varied across individual language students. The participants who studied more and who put more effort into participating in their classes experienced the most growth. The better a student performed, the more likely it was that his or her brain had grown a notable amount. Those students had better language skills than the other participants as well.

Students who put the most effort into their studies also presented with significant growth in the middle frontal gyrus of the brain, which is the cerebral cortex’s motor region.

These results are consistent with previous studies, which have shown that individuals who know more than one language have a later onset of Alzheimer’s disease than individuals who only know one language. Learning a new language is therefore beneficial for long-term health and brain function, in addition to short-term performance.

Language instruction is therefore very beneficial for individuals who want to improve their brains and ward off Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an excellent way to stay mentally sound. Of course, the benefits of learning a second language do not end there. Achieving fluency in a foreign language can also unlock new career and education opportunities.