Bilingualism transforms and modifies the structures of the human brain and is a valuable skill for many professional and everyday situations.
Knowing more than one language is a benefit not only for this ever-changing world, but also because it trains the brain's flexibility, problem-solving and strategising skills. Foreign languages are windows to different cultures, allowing us to connect with other people around the world.
Here, Halo Neuroscience explains how we form neural connections when we learn and how, with practice, these neural connections become stronger and stronger. Neural connections are formed when we learn, whether we are learning a maths exercise, playing the guitar or a new language.
These different linguistic elements require the brain to activate different parts. The main parts of the brain involved in linguistic processes are the Broca area, located in the left frontal lobe, responsible for speech production and articulation, and the Wernicke area, in the left temporal lobe, associated with language development and comprehension.
The changes in the brain that occur as a result of learning a foreign language are related to neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change or modify its structure. When a person is fluent in two (or more) languages, both languages are always active in the brain, requiring the brain to constantly manage and differentiate between them. This helps to explain why brain size, structure and function are different in multilingual people.
How does bilingualism influence executive functions?
Stronger executive function means that bilingual or multilingual people are generally better at analysing their environment, multitasking and problem solving. There is also evidence that they have a longer working memory even if the task in question is not language-related. Many studies have also shown that bilingual and multilingual people are less prone to degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's.
Changes have also been observed in the prefrontal cortex of bilinguals. This is the region of the brain that plays a role in "executive function, problem-solving, switching between tasks, and concentration while filtering irrelevant information," as Mia Nacamulli explained in a Ted-Ed presentation on the benefits of bilingualism.
Does bilingualism influence cognitive ageing?
The human brain is amazing. Its ability to grow and change based on the knowledge and experience humans have means it is constantly changing to better suit its needs. There are few things as beneficial to the brain as learning languages. Multilinguals perform better than monolinguals on achievement tests in all areas. Whether you are thinking of teaching your child a second language or are thinking of learning a second language, there is no downside to learning languages.
Naja Ferjan Ramirez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Washington, points out in her TEDx talk entitled "Creating bilingual minds" that while bilingualism can in many contexts be a superpower, each of us has our own journey, fraught with obstacles that require patience and motivation to overcome, and each of us becomes more or less effective in the second language we learn. Here's the speech and explanation of bilingualism and the changes it makes to the way our brains work.
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