The Science of Language Learning

Ever wonder what takes place in the brain when you learn a new language? The capacity of the human brain for learning a new language makes us unique—no other animal on the planet can do so. 

Around half of the world is bilingual, and many people want to adopt a new language. The neuroscience behind how the brain changes when you learn a new language proves how possible the feat is. Plus, learning a new tongue yields impressive benefits for the person and for the brain itself.

The bilingual brain allows the new potential for communication and social connections. You gain access to a new community of people to connect with. This new ability to communicate may even offer new employment opportunities. Beyond the social aspects, however, learning a second language physically changes the brain. Look at how the brain changes when you learn a new language. 

1. The size of your brain increases

Language learning increases the size of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. In a Swedish study, neuroscientists at the Swedish Armed Forces Academy examined the brain as recruits learned a new, completely unfamiliar language. Using magnetic resonance imaging and electrophysiology to examine the changing brains of the recruits, researchers found that key brain areas responsible for memory processing and learning grew substantially. 

2. The density of gray and white matter changes 

Grey matter in the brain is packed with nerve fibers that process information. The more gray matter in the brain, the healthier the organ is considered to be because it is densely packed with neural cells. Scans of bilingual people show that the gray matter in the left hemisphere—where language information is processed—is denser. Further, the brain’s white matter has more integrity among older adults that speak more than one tongue. White matter connects neural cells to other neural cells for rapid information processing,

3. Memory improves 

Learning a new language may even help support your short-term and working memory. Bilingual children have better short-term memory than those that only speak one language. And, the more proficient a person is in two languages, the better their working memory altogether.  

4. Enhanced focus and attention 

Picking up a second language may even improve executive functions of the brain, which help you focus. Bilingual individuals seem to have more control over executive functions, possibly due to the increased hippocampus size and more grey matter. 

5. You have lower risks of developing a neurological condition 

The parts of the brain that decline with age are challenged when learning a new language. Therefore, some research has proposed that speaking more than one language may negate some risks of developing neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease. In one small study, adults over 65 were taught a new language to measure benefits for the brain. The participants had noteworthy improvement in cognitive function. 

Adopting a new language is plausible because the brain is plastic. It changes to accommodate new information. Your neurons and synapses don’t just fossilize when you reach a certain age, either—you can learn new skills, including language, throughout your life. The brain builds new connections, stores new memories, and essentially reshapes itself over the years. 

Another interesting fact: age is not necessarily a factor in determining how well or how quickly you can learn a new language. Instead, other factors are better predictors of whether a person achieves a second language. For example, duration of instruction and interacting with native speakers may lead to better language retention. 

    Thanks to scientific and technological advancements, we understand more about the science of language learning. Without question, picking up a new language is beneficial, whether you simply want to build new connections with the world around you or want to do something good for your brain.