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.
What happens to our brains when we learn a new language?
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.
Research has shown that for over 90% of the population, the neural activity that facilitates the use of language occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. However, language learning is a complex process, which scientists have determined is not limited to any one hemisphere of the brain, but involves an exchange of information between the left and right sides.
Pennsylvania State University psychology and linguistics professor Dr Ping Li explains that a complete knowledge of a language includes retaining words (lexicon), learning the sound system (phonology), acquiring the writing system (orthography), becoming familiar with grammar (syntax) and picking up subtle ways of expression (pragmatics).
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 part of the brain in which people store a second language varies according to the age at which the second language is acquired. A study conducted at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, using 12 bilingual volunteers, revealed that when a second language is learned early in life, it is stored with the mother tongue; if the second language is learned as an adult, it is stored in a different area of the brain.
The brain stores languages separately at different times of life, which means that the structures involved in language acquisition and processing are not fixed but change, with cortical adaptation occurring when a new language is added.
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.
The positive benefits of bilingualism on the human brain
Recent evidence suggests a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition, including the later onset of dementia. Learning languages helps improve people's thinking skills and memory capacity. Bilingual learners concentrate better, ignoring distractions more effectively than those who speak only one language.
Because language centres in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of the mind and strengthen the brain's natural ability to concentrate.
According to studies and test performance of multilinguals, the ability to speak more than one language leads to:
- Greater intelligence
- Improved thinking and reading skills
- Better memory, attention, concentration and communication
- Increased verbal fluency
- More brain flexibility
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?
A study by Dr Thomas Bak - a lecturer at Edinburgh's Faculty of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences - shows that young adults who know two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language.
Dr Bak tested 853 participants in 1947, when they were all 11 years old. They were tested again in 2008 and 2010, when they were in their 70s. He found that those who became bilingual performed better than expected. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The results showed that learning a new language as an adult still has positive results, meaning there is never a reason to feel too old to reap the cognitive benefits of learning a new language.
Final thoughts on the impact of bilingualism on the human brain
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.