Rewiring your brain: The impact of language learning on neural plasticity.
By Geralde Vincent-Bancroft
Did you know that learning a new language can actually improve your brain function? It’s true! Scientists have been studying the effects of language learning on the brain for many years, and they have discovered some amazing things.
In this article, we will discuss some of the findings from scientific research on this topic. So read on to learn more about the amazing ways that learning a new language can benefit your brain!
Understanding The Neuroscience Of Language Learning
Brain regions that control our language.
There are a lot of brain areas involved. When you read a text some regions in the back and middle of your brain help you understand it. These are the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe, Wernicke area at the back of the temporal lobe, the insular cortex underneath the outer lobe of the cerebral cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum.
When you hear someone speaking, different regions are activated. These include the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe and Broca’s area in the frontal lobe. Broca’s area is responsible for producing speech.
So, when you’re learning a new language, all of these areas need to be activated in order to understand and produce the language. Most of these activities happen in the left side of our brain.
(2) Courtesy of the conversation.com
How learning a new language affects the brain.
When you’re first starting to learn a new language, your brain is working hard to process all of the new information. This means that different areas of the brain are being used more than usual. For example, when you’re trying to remember a new word, the hippocampus is working hard. This region is important for memory and learning. It is a transfer centre for long term memories and sleep plays an important role in this process.
(3) courtesy of simplypsychology.org
As you continue to learn the language, your brain becomes more efficient at processing the information. This means that you don’t have to use as much mental effort to understand what someone is saying or to produce speech yourself. The more you use a language, the more effortless it becomes.
How does learning a new language affect the brain?
In a study made in the Department of Psychology of Lund University, Sweden 2012 (1), they wanted to know how learning a foreign language would affect the brain. They tried to analyse if there would be growth on the brain areas related to foreign language learning.
To answer this, they studied cortical thickness and hippocampal volumes of conscript interpreters before and after three months of intense language studies. Their premise was that there would be an increase in grey matter volume in brain regions involved in first language acquisition in the left inferior parietal lobe.
They examined the conscripts in the interpreter academy of the Swedish military. The reason was because they study a foreign language at an intensity that surpasses any language learning system. They all started learning the new language without any previous knowledge to reach fluency after 10 months. They studied 500 new words each week.
To investigate whether intense language training would lead to changes in cortical thickness and hippocampal volumes, the 14 conscripts ( 6 women and 8 men) underwent magnetic Resonance Images(MRI) immediately before and after their first three months of language studies. Four of the interpreters studied Arabic, eight Dari, and two studied Russian. None of them had prior knowledge. The control group was made of medical and cognitive-science students.
The analysis of cortical areas interpreters showed a large increase in cortical thickness over time compared to the control group. Hippocampal volumes also increased significantly more in interpreters.
Their findings provided evidence that learning a foreign language in adulthood changes the structure of language-related brain regions.
They also concluded that hippocampal plasticity may be an important part of the system’s capacity for foreign language acquisition. Their results also showed the correlation between better plasticity of the temporal regions and hippocampus leading to more efficient language learning.
They therefore concluded that adult foreign-language learning shows increases in grey matter volume in language-related brain regions; and that the plasticity of the hippocampus and left superior-temporal gyrus might be important in learning a new language.
- Foreign language learning show increase in grey matter volume
- The hippocampus and the left superior-temporal gyrus play an important role in learning a new language
Benefits of these findings
There are various studies linking hippocampal atrophy to depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
Some preventative measures are recommended like physical exercise, stress reduction, memory-based activities like language learning, memorising words, reading and writing.
In the Swedish study, the neural changes in the hippocampus in particular, is very enlightening. It might be the mechanism behind the delayed onset of later life Alzheimer’s described in bilinguals.
So, learning a new language definitely affects the brain. But it’s not just a temporary change – it actually leads to lasting changes in the brain regions that control language.
So keep learning those new languages, and your brain will thank you for it!
“Learning languages changes brains,minds, hearts, and lives”
1- Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning
Johan Martesson, Johan Ericksson, Nils Christian Bodammer, Magnus Lingren, Mikael Johansson, Lars Nyberg, Martin Lovden. Department of psychology, lund University Sweden, 2012
2- What brain regions control our language? And how do we know this? David Abbot. .PublishedSeptember 25, 2016
3- Hippocampus simplypsychology.org/hippocampus