Do you speak several languages? In our global society, being multilingual helps you establish connections with people around the world and increases your chances of succeeding in business. But there is more… it seems to be good for your brain too.
Scientists have found that people who speak two languages have more grey matter in the executive control region of their brains than monolinguals. This is the area that controls higher cognitive processes like thinking, analyzing, making connections, and synthesizing information. Earlier research had already suggested that bilingualism can not only improve brain functioning but also keep age-related neural disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia at bay.
According to the researchers, switching from one spoken language to another gives the brain a workout and increases neural flexibility. Those who are fluent in two tongues have to constantly process two languages and instantly choose which of them to speak in to best express their thoughts. Adults who have spoken two languages since childhood have an easier time adjusting to a new or unexpected circumstance than those who speak only one language. This is also the reason why bilinguals are better at filtering out irrelevant information and processing greater volumes of data than monolinguals.
Bilingual people are not smarter than monolinguals. It is just that certain areas of the brains of bilingual people are more developed than those who speak only one language. A study was carried out in which one group of subjects was made to study a foreign language intensively for just over one year. Meanwhile, the control group studied subjects other than languages. The scans showed that the subjects who studied languages had greater growth in the cerebral cortex region than the control group. The hippocampus too, grew in size amongst the language learners.
Other studies corroborate the above findings. The more you use various regions of your brain, the stronger they become. The scans of native English subjects who were made to learn Chinese showed improved brain networks after six weeks of language lessons. These subjects showed stronger connections between various areas of the brain after learning a new language.
The above-mentioned language studies confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain. What is encouraging is that the brain can develop across ages and learning a second language helps in this growth. The brains of elderly subjects showed positive anatomical changes and functional development after they learned a new language.
Another study demonstrated that adults who learn a new language also exhibit positive changes in white matter. The subjects in the study were healthy adults. They showed changes in white matter volume in the frontal lobe of their brains, a region that was, till now, not thought to be involved in language processing activities.
The positive changes in the structure and functionality of adult brains indicate that there are anti-aging benefits of learning a new language. Learning a foreign language has a protective effect on memory. Some studies showed that, after taking into account factors like education, occupation, gender, and the environment where the subjects resided, bilingual subjects with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease manifested symptoms several years later than monolinguals.
Similarly, bilingual elderly people show greater cognitive facilities than those who speak only one language. In one study, they completed the same tasks faster than the monolingual subjects belonging to the same age group.
It is never too late to start improving, but learning a new language can give toddlers a substantial advantage over their peers. In a study carried out on 24-month-old children, it was found that those toddlers who were exposed to a second language during infancy had greater cognitive abilities along with bigger vocabularies in both languages than their monolingual peers. These findings contradicted the traditional belief that exposing infants to two languages confuses them.
The good news is that, although becoming bilingual may be hard if you are already a teenager or an adult, learning a language can strengthen the brain at any age.