How Learning A New Language Affects Your Brain
There are nearly 6,500 languages spoken by cultures across the world. Whether its English, Spanish, Tagalog, or French, language has an extensive impact on our cognitive abilities. Bilingualism is more than possessing the capability to speak multiple languages. The knowledge of a new language affects the human brain by encouraging neuroplasticity and increasing cognitive skills.
What Is Language Processing?
Language processing is a cognitive function humans communicate emotions, beliefs, and ideas through words. Whether through speech, sign language, or written symbols or sentences, the brain utilizes a range of cognitive skills to encode and decode language. It requires skills such as memory, attention, visual and/or auditory processing to make words, speak, and learn the appropriate rules to communicate.
Regardless of the differences, language processing is used for all languages. It is imperative for communication because if a single element of language is incorrect, it potentially alters the meaning of the entire message.
Why People Learn New Languages
People choose to learn new languages for a variety of reasons. Many learn a new language for occupational reasons. Many jobs have bilingualism as a requirement or increase salary for employees who are bilingual. They may do it as a hobby, to travel to foreign countries, or to connect with friends online. However, the most common motivator for learning a language is to communicate and build relationships with others.
The Parts of Language
Pronunciation, the way a word sounds, creating sentences, recognizing grammatical rules—together, these are the building blocks of language. Without even one of these components, communication is made difficult. In some cases, it is impossible. Each part of language affects the brain in a unique way.
- Mental Lexicon—Lexicon is the vocabulary in language. Think of a dictionary. A dictionary contains thousands of words that comprise a language. The mental lexicon is the act of remembering those words to use in speech. The brain is involved in activating, storing, processing, and receiving words. There has been much research in the mental lexicon of bilinguals. Studies have shown that words in both languages are activated at the same time.
- Phonology—Phonology is the sound system of language. It relies on the auditory processing center of the brain to become speech. The brain uses the word sounds to encode and decode words.
- Orthography—Language is not just speech. People communicate with each other through written language too. Orthography is the writing system of a language. It includes written symbols such as letters and numbers, as well as punctuation, spelling, capitalization, emphasis, and more.
- Syntax—Syntax describes the grammatical rules of a language. It consists of how words and phrases go together to form a sentence.
- Pragmatics—Pragmatics is how words are used. It is the study of symbols, word meaning, and organization. It refers to how context impacts the meaning of language.
Types of Bilingualism
Learning a new language is vastly different than learning a second language. Firstly, a second language is generally learned at an older age. Less time is also dedicated to learning said language in comparison to one’s native tongue. Because of the varying factors, there are three types of bilingualism.
Coordinate bilingualism is an early form of bilingualism learned in childhood. It is characterized as learning two languages during different life stages. The two languages are spoken equally. Subordinate bilingualism, a subtype of coordinate bilingualism, is when one of the languages is spoken more frequently in daily life. Coordinate bilingualism originates when each parent speaks a different language to the child.
Like coordinate bilingualism, compound bilingualism is another early form learned in childhood. In compound bilingualism, the child learns two or more languages simultaneously. Compound bilingualism is also called simultaneous acquisition. It tends to occur when the child’s parents are bilingual and speak both languages to the child.
Late bilingualism is when a second language is learned after the age of 6 or 7, in adolescence, or even adulthood. The individual learns the second language well after the typical childhood language developmental period. They use their knowledge and experience of their native tongue to learn a new language.
Passive bilingualism is understanding a second language without the ability to speak it. An example of passive bilingualism is hearing and understanding a conversation in Spanish, but only replying in English. Individuals who are passive bilinguals must practice in order to not lose out on the oral skills of the language they wish to master.
Additive bilingualism is a type of bilingualism in which two languages are optimally maintained. Both languages are learned in a balanced manner. The second language is acquired while still developing the first language. An individual has the opportunity to practice either language in multiple environments such as at home, school, or work.
Contrary to additive bilingualism, subtractive bilingualism is not a strong bilingualism. In subtractive bilingualism, the native tongue is lost during the process of acquiring a second language. There is the risk of losing the ability to speak the first language. Often, subtractive bilinguals do not have the same number of opportunities to practice both languages.
The Brain’s Language Center
The majority language activity occurs on the left side of the brain. Four regions are related to language and communication. Wernicke’s area determines context and meaning. The insular cortex is responsible for language processing. The angular gyrus helps the understanding of words and concepts. However, the main language center in the brain is Broca’s area. Broca’s area controls language formation.
Confirming which brain areas connected to language originated from the observation of patients suffering from brain injuries. In the 1800s, a neurologist named Pierre Paul Broca noticed a patient who possessed adequate motor skills, yet could not form language. This patient had a lesion on what is now known as Broca’s area. Similarly, Carl Wernicke noticed another patient who could speak, but because his Wernicke’s area was damaged, he could not understand language.
Neuroplasticity and Learning A New Language
Being bilingual facilitates neuroplasticity—the process of creating and strengthen neural connections that deliver messages from the nervous system to other parts of the body. Neuroplasticity of the brain is important. It encourages the growth of brain cells (i.e. neurons) and allows the brain to adapt to changes in the environment. Various tasks impact neuroplasticity and learning a new language is one of them. The process keeps the brain younger as its functions such as attention, memory, and processing speed decline around the age of 25.
The Bilingual Brain VS. The Monolingual Brain
The brain of a bilingual individual contains more brain cells than a monolingual individual. These brain cells increase the density of gray matter. The bilingual brain continues to show damage of neurodegeneration as the brain ages, but without a marked decline in cognitive functioning. While the damage is evident on imaging scans, those who have learned a second language have enhanced networks in their brains to overcome the memory deficits and cognitive decline associated with age. Their brains reroute networks that have been damaged. Researchers refer to this theory as cognitive compensation.
Learning A New Language and Attention
Regardless of age, those who learn a second language have increased attention skills. Switching back and forth between multiple languages refines the brain’s auditory processing. The brain becomes more aware of auditory information in the environment. Bilingual individuals are superior in retaining spoken information. They score higher on intelligence tests because they have the concentration to take more away from a lecture or conversation conveying information.
Learning A New Language and Memory
The study of language is strongly associated with memory. Memory is required to repeat words, remember grammatical rules, and sentence organization. Those who speak multiple languages have a better working memory. Their brains hold more details and information at one time. Compared to monolinguals, they are able to “work” with information (i.e. words, letters, sounds, etc.) and apply it in everyday life.
The memory benefits are especially significant in children. Children have an easier time learning a new language, as the neuroplasticity of their brains is increased. Even in children, bilinguals excelled at memory games in comparison to the children with only one spoken language.
Can Learning A New Language Prevent Dementia?
Dementia is a condition characterized by a loss of cognitive abilities and social skills that affect daily functioning. The cognitive decline is more than would be expected with normal aging of the brain. Although experts have not found a prevention from dementia, there is evidence that learning multiple languages can prevent its onset.
Learning two languages trains and modifies the brain’s cognitive functions. Switching between languages and words, unique sounds, and grammatical rules encourage brain flexibility that is unattainable by monolinguals. Bak, a scientist from India, compared to monolingual and bilingual individuals. His studies in 2008 and 2010 revealed that bilinguals do not show as steep of a decline in cognitive functioning. A second study noted that bilinguals developed dementia four-and-a-half years later than monolingual patients.
Klimova, B., Valis, M., & Kuca, K. (2017). Bilingualism as a strategy to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical interventions in aging, 12, 1731–1737. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S145397
Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.