Neuroscience has come a long way in providing us some amazing information about our brains. We have scans that can actually show which parts of our brains are active during our outward activity. Reading, drawing, problem-solving, making decisions, exhibiting emotional responses and even learning a foreign language.
A number of studies, using scanning technology, have already shown that there are changes when the brain learns something new. And in that learning, new neural connections are made. But now we also have a number of studies that show the specific benefit of learning a foreign language.
Here are just a few of those studies and what they mean for the average individual, who takes on the challenge of learning a foreign language.
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Penn State Study
Our brain has a network of connections. When we engage in learning, that brain is exercised and both new networks are made and existing ones are strengthened. One of the amazing things we now know is that these networks are strengthened at all ages – infancy through old age.
The Penn State study focused specifically on learning a foreign language – Mandarin Chinese to be specific. The researchers set up a study with half of the subjects learning Mandarin vocabulary. The other half did not engage in any learning a foreign language study. MRI scans were used at the onset and after six weeks.
The results were clear: The brain scans of those who engaged in learning a foreign language showed definite changes in the structure and functions of the brain. The networks had strengthened networks – they became more flexible, a condition that allows for better and faster learning.
The other result for those learning a foreign language was that the density of their gray matter increased and white tissue was stronger!
What this means for the lay person is this: gray matter relates to the brain’s ability to control muscles, form memories, and enhance sensory perception. The white matter connects all of this gray matter together. And other research shows that this happens in all ages when learning a foreign language is undertaken.
One of the implications of this study and others is that, contrary to earlier notions, the brain is much more elastic than scientists thought, at all ages. The implications for the aging populations are particularly significant.
A Swedish Study
Another study of military recruits also used experimental and control groups. One group set about learning some difficult languages – Russian, Arabic, and Dari – while the control group continued with the hardest college classes (medical and cognitive science) that both groups were taking.
The before and after MRI scans showed that certain parts of the brains of the learning a foreign language students grew in size; brains of the control group remained the same. The areas that had growth were related to language and memory.
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Age and Senility
Canadian researchers have also determined that individual who are bilingual, who have tried learning a foreign language at some point in their lives are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease an average of four years later than their monolingual counterparts.
Dr. Thomas Bak, professor at Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, conducted a study with colleagues from the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India. Like the Canadian study, they found that the onset of Alzheimer’s was an average of four years later for bilingual individuals.
For younger individuals, from early childhood to adulthood, they also found that those who tried learning a foreign language had improved focus and memory, exhibiting especially better auditory attention and ability to screen out extemporaneous sounds.
Learning a Foreign Language - More Research Needed
Of course, these early studies call for much more research on learning a foreign language, and they are ongoing all over the world. But if these early findings bear out, then there are some important conclusions and implications that should motivate individuals and schools to foster bilingualism.
- If more and better neural connections are made in the process of learning a foreign language, then it would appear that every child at a very young age should be learning a second language
- If more and better neural connections are made through study of foreign languages, then all age groups ought to be learning more languages as they move through adulthood
- If the brain increases its plasticity (ability to grow and make new connections) through learning a foreign language, then all senior citizens ought to be encouraged to take up another language as they move into these years.
- If learning another language has the effect of increasing focus and memory, then all school-aged children ought to be involved in the study of foreign languages through their entire K-12 schooling years. Perhaps part of helping children with ADD/ADHD lies in teaching foreign languages. This would make an interesting research study, for certain.
And if the potential benefits to the brain of learning a foreign language aren’t enough, how about this?
- We are living in an increasingly global society. People who are natives of one country are moving to other for work, school, etc. Learning additional languages is not just a luxury or option anymore.
- Multi-national corporations are looking for employees who are multilingual as a condition of employment.
- The need for translations by businesses, Internet-based commerce, medical and scientific research journals, and governments is a continually growing need.
In general, individuals who are multilingual are more valuable to businesses and societies in general.
If, in learning a foreign language, you can increase your brain power and make yourself more employable, why would you not want to do so? So, pick a language to learn and get going.
Nelma Lumme is a freelance content writer. Originally from Finland, she lives now in Chicago, IL. Nelma studied sociology at the University of Tampere. She now helps people with career questions, providing useful tips for recruiters and employees through her articles. Follow Nelma on Twitter and Facebook.