Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion about the effects of language learning on the human brain. Scientists have explored topics such as: language learning in children vs. adults; spaced repetition practices even researching the connection between language learning and the prevention of dementia!
But what really happens to your brain during language learning?
Studies have shown that language learning takes place in different areas of the brain depending on what age you learn it. This is why children process new languages differently to adults, and are generally more willing to experiment with their new language skills sooner.
The act of studying a language – learning to listen, read, write and speak with foreign words – helps
to create complex links within your brain. These links help you to understand the connection between sounds, structures and expression.
These connections help to create and utilise alternative networks within the brain. This is called
neuroplasticity, altering the structure of your brain and improving memory functions.
Just like a muscle, your brain requires a kind of “exercise” to stay in shape. Language learning is the
perfect exercise for your brain, making it stronger. These kinds of mental exercises help to maintain your brain health, even as you age.
Sounds, syllables, words, grammar, sentences…
Language learning is a workout for the whole brain.
There is evidence to show language learning can help with executive function – the skill to control, adapt and direct your attention span. This helps you to focus on the task at hand and manage your awareness of the words and sounds around you.
It can even help you to understand abstract concepts more easily, like the associations of sounds
with letters. For example:
Take the letter “H” in these 3 languages: English, Russian and Greek.
In English, it makes a sound like the H in “he”; in Russian, it is N like “nickel”; but in Greek it is the sound of E like “scree”.
And yet the letter itself is always written the same way.
Language learning uses both hemispheres
Once upon a time, academics believed language learning was based in the left hemisphere, but studies show that’s not true.
Native languages are stored within the left side of the brain, but acquiring new languages facilitates
information exchange between the two sides of the brain.
This information sharing keeps your brain healthy, even as you age. It promotes your ability to problem solve and focus. The same area of your brain also affects your mood, multitasking ability and even your balance.
Language learning to prevent disease
Regardless of the age you acquire a new language, studies are showing the potential for fending off diseases commonly associated with aging, like dementia. This link has been established by scientists, but how does it work?
The connections your brain made while learning a language can be used later in life as the other areas of your brain start to slow down. This early practice in building up alternative brain functions (neuroplasticity) builds strong brain connections that can be used throughout your life.
Learning a new language, at any time in your life, helps to strengthen your mind. These new skills will help you in all areas of life, not just language.
Remember this the next time you put off your French practice.
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