There are some very interesting findings on changes in brain structure from a study conducted by Canadian and British researchers for second language learners. The results support a few accepted notions about the benefits of learning a second language in childhood.
According to the study proponents, their observations show that the pattern of brain development in childhood is the same whether the person learns one or two languages. But, in children who are already proficient in one language and then learn another, brain structure is modified, particularly the part of the brain called the left inferior frontal cortex. This brain structure is involved in consciousness, language, memory, and thought.
A newborn baby’s brain has roughly a hundred billion neurons. But it is how the connections are made that determines if the brain grows and improves in function. It is part of normal brain development for neuronal connections to be eliminated if they are not used. The ones that are used most are fortified and grow to form new and more extensive connections.
An interesting set of findings
Based on MRI scans, the left inferior frontal cortex of the study participants thickened and the left thinned upon learning a second language. The conclusion of this joint study is that learning a second language in latter childhood promotes growth of nerve cells and new connections between them as well. The study was conducted by researchers from Brain and Language in England and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. This study was published in “Brain and Language.”
The results of the study also have implications in language learning in adults. The authors propose that in adults who have difficulty learning a second language, the issue might be structural. Structural evidence is here on the hypothesis that the age of acquisition is critical in “laying down the structure for language learning.”When a child acquires a second language there are more structural changes in the inferior frontal cortex.
Language learning boosts brain power
Many people who speak more than one language and do so very proficiently usually learn their second or third language when they were young. There have been studies done previously showing that learning a new language boosts various functions of the brain and actually makes the brain healthier. Previous studies have also revealed that learning a new language leads to growth of certain areas and this new study adds to existing evidence.
Brain growth in the first three years of life is very much influenced by stimulation. Though genetics determines the basic structure, the way that the brain develops is very much dependent on outside factors. The brain of every infant is definitely structured for language and there are certain periods in child development when the most learning could take place. This is one reason why the brain needs to be stimulated adequately.
Studies on learning languages have not even skimmed the surface. As researchers delve deeper into the study of language acquisition, we will learn more about this still mysterious realm of the human experience.