There are plenty of reasons to learn a new language. You can develop a different perspective of culture. Communicate better when traveling. Being bilingual can even open the door to a successful future. While these benefits certainly promote a better quality of life in many regards, there are also cognitive benefits to being bilingual.
Studies show that learning foreign languages helps support brain development. Becoming bilingual is a great way to boost brain function and improve your overall cognitive health. And knowing how your brain changes when you study a language may motivate you on your path towards rapid fluency.
While your brain is an organ, it often exhibits characteristics than better reflects muscles. Brains grow and develop with use. You can train yourself to stay focused longer and memorize faster while studying more complex problems. Your brain will adapt to handle increased workloads with the result of improved performance over time.
However, one study showed that learning a foreign language changes the structure and function of your brain network. The study took two groups and had one group focus on language learning while the other focused on intensive study in some other field. After six weeks, those who participated in language learning programs developed more pathways that allowed for improved cognitive function.
And it’s not the only study of its kind. Another study exposed native Japanese speakers to the letters “r” and “l” which they often have trouble discerning the difference between. After repeated exposure through three 20-minute sessions of listening, participants developed the ability to distinguish between the sounds.
The effects of these sessions lasted much longer. The participants were able to tell the difference in the sounds even months after the study. Additionally, the parts of the brain associated with processing them also lit up under an MRI scan. This illustrates that studying language creates lasting changes in the physical makeup of the brain.
Early on in the US, there was a myth that being bilingual impaired mental development. This is partially the reason that language education in the US often doesn’t start until middle or high school. While the education system hasn’t caught up, science has. Studies on bilingual people’s ability to rapidly process information have concluded that speaking multiple languages gives you more mental flexibility.
A bilingual individual’s ability to switch rapidly between languages seems to foster this skill. They also tend to use a word in the wrong language rarely. With more mental flexibility, people who speak multiple languages can process faster and multitask better than those who only speak one language. This latter function is also in part because those who speak multiple languages also have better working memories than those who only speak one language.
One of the most frustrating things about learning a new language is trying to remember new information. It can be irritating to return to previous lessons or flashcards, see words you know, and yet somehow not be able to remember them. But it turns out that the more experience you have with studying and remembering the second language, the easier it is for you to access your memory. Not only does regular study of a second language help protect memory, but it also promotes and maintains the active process of retrieving information stored in your brain.
The research on whether or not learning a second language can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s is not definite. However, there is more than enough evidence supporting the belief that learning a second language supports brain health. As mentioned earlier, the brain is like a muscle, the more it’s used, the healthier it remains. And studying and learning a second language is a great way to accomplish this.
When you’re multilingual, your brain performs something called “code switching.” As you learn more and more of a second language, your brain will begin to alternate between your native language and your foreign language, attempting to find the proper words for communication.
When someone who knows multiple languages completes a basic activity, more of the brain is in use compared to someone who only speaks one language. And more brain involvement helps support brain health. And in cases of supporting brain health, the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be in the end.
Being fluent in a foreign language can help you focus more on the task at hand. A study that was carried out on bilingual people showed that they were better mentally equipped to focus on tasks despite distractions. While both groups were able to maintain focus, bilinguals were able to respond faster than those who only spoke one language. This rests on the notion that people who speak more than one language regularly move back and forth between languages, increasing their ability to focus. By learning to switch between languages rapidly, the cognitive benefits of being bilingual boost their brain health.
It turns out that people who speak tonal languages have a more developed understanding of music. Tonal languages like Mandarin require the use of different tones of the same word to create variations in the language. This means that the same word spoken at a different tone has an entirely different meaning.
Those who are fluent in tonal languages, like Mandarin or Cantonese, have a greater ability to process pitch and tone. In tonal languages, the same word will have different tones and therefore different meanings. Learning to speak these languages can give you a fine-tuned ability to detect changes in pitch, a great advantage if you’re interested in music.
This isn’t to say that people who are bilingual are smarter than those who aren’t. But it’s definitely a cognitive benefit of being bilingual. When you take into account all of the brain benefits that are a result of learning another language, you end up with a brain that is much more prepared for interaction with the world.
Bilingual brains are healthier and more connected as they juggle larger amounts of information compared to monolingual brains. The studies may still be out on this one, but with all the benefits of being bilingual combined together, it’s a safe bet to say learning another language mostly likely improves intelligence to some degree.
The best way to see the results brought about by studying a foreign language is to do just that, start learning a foreign language. Studying new words and immersing yourself in a different language will spur your brain’s rapid development. You can access the cognitive benefits of being bilingual even if you’re not completely fluent.
Keep in mind that your brain needs to be challenged. While casually learning the language at the beginning is helpful, a regular schedule of study over a period of time will yield the best results. Being bilingual will change your worldview while helping you remember and process more information faster. And it will do all this while keeping your brain healthy longer.
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