What happens to your brain when you learn a language?

Updated: Jul 25

Author: Rushil Dua

Language is a crucial part of the human experience — our shared innate nature. It provides us with a frame of reference on our life perspective, a way to express ourselves, and to organise our thoughts. Almost everyone is competent in at least one language, which is managed by different parts of the brain [1]. Many people know that it can be beneficial to learn a new language, but what exactly does learning another language do to the brain? This article will examine these activities in the adult brain.

How does the brain respond to new skills?

When we learn new information or gain new experiences, the brain remaps itself or changes the nature of certain synaptic connections [1]. This process is known as neuroplasticity [1]. Neuroplasticity can occur as a result of many different kinds of learning. One such example of this is the brain changing in response to a heightened spatial awareness.

A study [2] performed by Eleanor Maguire in 2000 compared, via MRI, the brains of experienced taxi drivers versus non-taxi drivers. She discovered that the taxi drivers had more grey matter, suggesting that their brains changed in response to their increased spatial awareness and experiences as a taxi driver [2].

Seeing as neuroplasticity can allow for the development of a higher grey matter content in the brain, many often encourage development of skills which are likely to aid in the brain’s cortical remapping [1]. For example, many will attempt to learn a musical instrument, learn a language, learn to code, etc. Skills like these may encourage the development of a higher grey matter content [1,3]. This is significant because grey matter enriches information processing by making it more effective and efficient [3].

In the context of language learning, it is suggested that the brain experiences neuroplasticity with increased exposure and practice of the target language, which is required to develop fluency of that language — in other words, practice makes perfect.

It is still not fully clear to what extent the brain will experience neuroplasticity, as this depends on the level of exposure, intensity and frequency of the study regiment [4]. However, as the brain adapts to the intake of information, changes to the structure of the brain will still likely occur [5].

How does the adult brain respond to language learning?

The neuroplasticity of learning languages as an adult is, unfortunately, not without restriction [4]. Some research suggests that because the adult brain is less malleable (less susceptible to change) than the brain of a child, it is less susceptible to developing an inherent understanding of a language’s grammar, pronunciation, etc. [4]. This is also why children have an easier time learning languages and new skills in general [4].

This, however, should not be discouraging. Even outside of the critical period of language learning, the brain can still retain new languages and use them productively via new synaptic connections [4].

In fact, studies demonstrate that adults show a larger cerebral cortex and hippocampus after learning a new language, which is beneficial because these two parts of the brain play important roles in memory, language and neural integration [5]. The larger these two regions, the better allowance for stronger learning and memory capacity because grey and white matter content increases, allowing for enriched processing and quicker signal transmission [3,5,6]. Furthermore, as language learning is a process that involves both sides of the brain, with a focus on processing, motor skills, speaking, and listening, the brain is likely to be benefited as a whole when a language is learned [7]. There is also development in the frontal and parietal lobes, which are involved in executive control [7].

Even the mere capability of knowing when to use which language and when to switch to and from them is a simple benefit which actively helps the brain’s development, as a facet of executive control [6,7]. This notably provides a boost to compartmentalisation, executive functioning, switching between tasks, and focusing [5].

Summary

Learning a new language is a skill that requires effort from all parts of the brain, and active engagement with this kind of information is sure to provide a “boost” to the brain as a whole [4-7]. Due to this, the adult brain is still able to grow and remap neuronic connections, and grow more grey matter to enhance information processing [3-7].

In general, learning a language provides the brain with many cognitive advantages over monolingual individuals [4-7]. While children may have an advantage in learning languages faster, putting age and cognitive performance aside shows that learning a language can provide real world opportunities for the learner, whether it be access to a new culture, or an interesting career advantage, benefitting all [4].

Author

Rushil Dua

Editors

Alison MacPhee, Mouayad Masalkhi, Rhea Verma

Designer

Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Header Photo courtesy of the CDC

References

  1. Brancatisano E [Internet]. New York (NY): Huffington Post News; 2020. Here’s how picking up a new skill can help your brain; 2017 Jan 17 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available: www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/01/18/heres-how-picking-up-a-new-skill-can-help-your-brain_a_21657171/

  2. Maguire E, Gadian D, Johnsrude I, Good C, Ashburner J, Frackowiak R, et al. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. PNAS [Internet]. 2000 Apr 14 [cited 2020 Sep 20];97(8):4398-4403. Available from: doi.org/10.1073/pnas.070039597

  3. Pilcher H. Grey matter matters for intellect. Nature [Internet]. 2004 Jul 31 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available from: doi.org/10.1038/news040719-11

  4. Witteman J, Chen Y, Pablos-Robles L, Parafita MC, Wong PC, Schiller NO. Editorial: (Pushing) the limits of neuroplasticity induced by adult language acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2018 Sep 25 [cited 2020 Sep 20];9:1806. Available from: doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01806

  5. The Guardian [Internet]. London (UK): Guardian News & Media Limited; 2020. What happens in the brain when you learn a language?; 2014 Sep 4 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/04/what-happens-to-the-brain-language-learning

  6. Skibba R [Internet]. Palo Alto (CA): Knowable Magazine; 2020. How a second language can boost the brain; 2018 Nov 29 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available: www.knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/how-second-language-can-boost-brain

  7. Magalhaes R [Internet]. Lisbon (LX): Understanding with Unbabel; 2019. What happens to your brain when you learn a new language?; 2019 Feb 19 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available: unbabel.com/blog/brain-language-learning/

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