Though many students spend four years of high school learning a foreign language, most of us probably retained very little. Chalk it up to the carelessness of youth, but chances are you've since been in situations or places that left you wishing you paid more attention in class or had continued practicing long after you graduated.
Being bilingual has benefits far beyond traveling to foreign countries and graduating from high school—the mechanisms involved and learning and retaining foreign languages increase your brain power in many ways.
When we learn a new language, certain areas of our brains physically grow larger. The more you learn, the more those learning centers continue to expand. Researcher Johan Martensson and his team conducted a study on the brain development of adults learning a new language, and found that brain changes occurred as individuals become increasingly bilingual.
Martensson's research shows that after three months of studying an unfamiliar language, participants' brains grew in four places: the hippocampus, middle frontal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus (gyri are ridges on the cerebral cortex).
Additionally, the adults' brains were more malleable, and showed a correlation between their level of fluency and their brain's flexibility. The more time spent learning and using a new language, the more adaptive—and bigger in size—the brain becomes.
Have you ever met a child who can speak two languages, switching between them so effortlessly that it's almost unbelievable? Obviously adults have the capacity to learn a new language, too—and though it'll take more effort, it trains the brain to hold and recall more information.
According to research conducted by Julia Morales of Spain's Granada University, children who learn a second language are able to recall memories better than monolinguals, or speakers of just one language. When asked to complete memory-based tasks, Morales and her team found that those who had knowledge of multiple languages worked both faster and more accurately.
The young participants who spoke a second language had a clear advantage in working memory. Their brains worked faster, pulling information and identifying problems in a more logical fashion. When your brain is put through its paces and forced to recall specific words in multiple languages, it develops strength in the areas responsible for storing and retrieving information.
Multitasking isn't an easy feat—it requires switching between tasks quickly and focusing our brain on a jumbled mix of steps, problems, and possible solutions. Yet if you begin learning a brand-new language, you could become a multitasking pro.
According to research conducted by Brian Gold, adding a language to your linguistic repertoire increases brain flexibility, making it easy to switch tasks in just seconds. Foreign language-speaking participants in Gold's study were found to be better at adapting all around, and were able to handle unexpected obstacles or situations in stride.
What is it about a different language that makes speakers better at multitasking? It's all about cognitive stimulation. When we learn a new language, we frequently jump between our familiar first language and the new one, making connections to help us retain what we're learning. WIth synapses firing and making connections, different areas of our brain become activated quickly—the more we switch between languages, the more those brain zones become accustomed to working. Once they've become accustomed to used to this type of "workout," those same areas start helping to switch between tasks beyond language.
Need to rein in your focus? Start picking up a new language, and you'll find yourself ignoring distractions at work and boosting your productivity. Researchers have found that knowledge of multiple languages offers people better control over their executive functions.
When asked to concentrate on a task, the study's bilingual participants showed an increased ability to tune out distractions and focus on the given assignment. With this improved attention span, the multiple language speakers were also better equipped to interpret the work before them, weeding out unnecessary information and working on only what was important.
So picking up another language can help you get more work done and it may even help your brain sort information better.
Continued learning throughout life is good for our brains, keeping us sharp as we physically age, but choosing to learn an additional language has added benefits. Multiple studies have found that becoming bilingual, or even multilingual, as an older adult helps slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease—and it's all because of the unique effects multiple languages have on the brain.
Dr. Brian Gold, a University of Kentucky neuroscientist, conducted a study that tested bilingual older adults on attention-switching tasks. Seniors who knew an additional language were better at sorting items quickly than their monolingual counterparts. Gold, who analyzed the participants' brains while they worked, found that bilingual adults had brains that more closely resembled those of youngsters. These "younger" brains worked harder, excelling at skills that typically fade with age—that extra brain power gained from multilingualism kept mental deterioration at bay.
Similarly, Dr. Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh found that seniors who spoke two or more languages don't suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia as quickly as monolinguals. On average, those who knew multiple languages had a 4.5-year advantage. Bak associates this slower onset of disease with languages' learning requirements: "Being bilingual is a particularly efficient and effective type of mental training. In a way, I have to selectively activate one language and deactivate the other language. This switching really requires attention."
That switching back and forth between languages helps our brain stay quick on its feet, so to speak, getting regular workouts as each is used. Keep your mind active by picking up a new language, and you'll, in a sense, stay younger and healthier as you age.
The drawbacks of learning multiple languages are few and far between: researchers have found that bilingualism leads to a smaller range of vocabulary in both languages, as brain power is diverted to task switching, and adults can't always recall vocabulary quickly, needing more time to sort through the languages and their options.
Yet learning new things is a great way to give your brain a workout and enhance many of your already present skills. When a new language is added into the mix, however, it can make you better at just about everything.
As Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet, a pair of scientists from Belgian, discovered in their research, developing skills in a new language improves individuals' alertness, auditory attention, divided attention, and mental flexibility. The more you immerse yourself in the new language, the more you hone your executive functions.
And if all of those advantages aren't enough to convince you to dig up those old high school Spanish textbooks, learning a new language can help you solve problems and increase creativity, according to Kathryn Bamford and Donald Mizokawa's research. And who knows... once you get going and can recognize the changes in your thinking, you may be inspired to reach polyglot levels, like Polyglot Pal.
So if you're looking to increase your abilities and give your brain a lasting workout, pick a language and start learning—no matter what language you choose, the process will have benefits that stick around for years.
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