This is How Language Learning Affects the Brain


Knowing how to speak more than one language is highly beneficial. It can help with success in school, it is a very valuable skill in business or other professions and careers, and it can be helpful in many other life situations. But did you know that learning a new language actually changes the structure and function of the brain?

Language learning causes an increase in brain size and overall brain function. According to studies, language learning improves executive function, memory, focus, creativity, ability to process and manage information, and delays cognitive diseases such as dementia. 

The brain is a highly complex and advanced organ. Knowing that language learning affects the brain is not the whole story. Read on to learn more about how language learning affects different parts of the brain and overall brain function, what learning does to the brain, and how those effects change depending on a person’s age. 

How Language Learning Affects the Brain

“Language and Brain: From Dyslexia to Progressive Aphasia” from UCSF

Many groundbreaking studies have been done on the effects of language learning on the brain. These studies have shown significant differences in the brains of monolingual (able to speak only one language) and multilingual (able to speak multiple languages) individuals. These studies compare people who learn a language at all different ages. 

Overall, people who speak multiple languages have healthier, better functioning brains than those who speak only one language. You can think of it in terms of physical exercise. The people who speak multiple languages have worked their brains out in ways that monolingual people have not, so they have stronger tissue.

Exactly how the brain is affected by language learning varies depending on the age of a person and their extent of knowledge in different languages. However, the process of language learning alters brain structure and performance regardless of a person’s age. According to official studies, the ability to speak more than one language results in:

  • Increased brain size—namely, increased amounts of grey and white matter in the brains of multilingual individuals
  • Improved brain function—better memory, focus, communication, creativity, flexibility, and ability to manage and process information and multitask
  • Delay of onset and symptoms of cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Enhanced attention and sensitivity to different sounds

For another article based around the same topic, see my article on 3 ways language learning can boost brain function.

Language Learning And Its Effect on Brain Size

The learning process, in general, is essentially a kind of workout for the brain, increasing size and performance over time. Learning has a similar effect on the brain that physical activity and exercise have on the muscles—the more the muscles have to work, the more physical changes that will occur as a result of this exercise.

The ability to speak multiple languages has been directly linked to increased brain size. When comparing brain scans of individuals who speak two or more languages versus the scans of individuals who only speak one language, the brains of multilingual people have shown increased amounts of grey and white matter.

Grey matter is one of two types of brain tissues. Grey matter holds the cell bodies of neurons. It is associated with a person’s general intelligence, memory capacity, attention, and language ability. The more grey matter a person has, the higher intellectual capacity that person usually possesses, as well. 

White matter is the other type of brain tissue. It consists of axons that connect regions of grey matter and neurons together. White matter controls the speed at which information is processed. Essentially, white matter determines how fast messages travel through the neural networks to the brain. This also controls a person’s memory recall. 

Signs of a Healthy Brain

An increased amount of grey matter is, overall, a sign of a healthy brain. Grey matter helps the brain to more effectively manage information and distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. This heightened efficiency makes it much easier for a person to focus and ignore distractions.

Brains with more white matter are particularly adept at combating the natural decline in mental function that comes with age. This strength is directly related to improved memory recall. The increased white matter that exists in the brains of multilingual people has been linked to the delay of cognitive diseases, such as dementia, as well.

Improved Brain Function

Language learning and the ability to speak multiple languages, or being able to speak more than one language, are beneficial to overall brain function as studies have proved time and time again. According to studies and test performances by multilingual people, the ability to speak multiple languages leads to:

  • Higher intelligence
  • Improved thinking and reading skills
  • Better memory, attention, concentration, and communication
  • Increased verbal fluency
  • More brain flexibility
  • Increased creativity

The improvements to brain function that are found in multilingual individuals are a direct result of the language learning process. Knowledge of a second language, even for individuals early in the language learning process, causes structural changes in the brain. These changes, in turn, affect how well the brain functions.

Improved Executive Function

Executive function refers to the brain’s most advanced processes. They are things that keep humans operating at the highest levels. Executive functions allow people to ignore distractions and focus on the tasks at hand. The brain’s ability to prioritize executive functions provides better attention spans and the ability to multitask successfully.

People who suffer from executive dysfunction, such as those with attention disorders, have trouble focusing and controlling attention. This can be very frustrating and cause issues in day-to-day life. Language learning and bi- or multilingualism strengthen the brain’s executive function capabilities, which can ease these discouraging difficulties. 

Because people who are able to speak two or more languages have brains that switch between languages subconsciously, the muscle function is already there. The brain is used to tuning in and out from one language to another without the person consciously choosing to do so. 

This already-present muscle memory allows those same people to switch from one focus to another, allowing them to tune out distractions with ease. They are able to use the same skills the brain gained from language learning to properly command their attention without expending an exhaustive effort. 

Delay of Cognitive Decline and Disease

The benefits of learning a foreign language and the ability to speak multiple languages are often considered to be the most significant at an early age. It is true that the younger a person is, the easier learning a new language is, and the benefits received are more significant. It is usually much easier for a child to learn a new language than an adult.

However, the ability to speak more than one language fluently has also shown to provide significant benefits in aging and elderly individuals. The cognitive effects of learning and using a new language are a result of the increased grey and white brain matter caused by language learning. 

These effects have shown to be beneficial throughout a multilingual individual’s life, helping to reduce the rate of cognitive decline that comes with age and even delay the onset of cognitive diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. These benefits have proven true no matter the age at which a person begins learning a second language.

Do not be discouraged if you missed learning a second language as a child. In the US, children are not often encouraged to learn multiple languages like in other countries. It is never too late to dive into a second language, and the benefits are astounding. The US is also seeing a trend where children are experiencing more language.

How Learning a New Language Structurally Alters the Brain

The Neuroscience of Learning = Plasticity

Learning a new language does not just increase the size of the brain. Because learning a language is such a complex process, it increases the level of brain activity in various areas. The changes in the brain that happen as a result of language learning have to do with neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change or alter its structure.

The brain’s neuroplasticity is not just effective for language learning. The human brain is an incredible feat of nature, as that same plasticity allows it to alter its own structure and repair itself should damage or injury occur. The brain is able to mold itself based on its experiences. Language learning creates one of these extraordinary impacts.

When a person is fluent in two (or more) languages, both languages are always active in the brain, requiring the brain to manage and differentiate between them constantly. This is something that does not occur in monolingual brains. This helps to explain why the brain sizes, structures, and functions are different in multilingual individuals.

Different Parts of the Brain Involved With Language Learning

For most people, the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the ability to use their native language, whatever it may be. In children who learn a second language, that second language is stored in their brains’ left hemisphere along with their native language. For everyone else, non-native languages are stored elsewhere.

When it comes to adult language learning, the process is far more complex. Language learning involves both sides of the brain, requiring an exchange of information between the two sides. The white matter mentioned above is responsible for bridging the gap between the two hemispheres, facilitating this information exchange. 

Several different parts of the brain are associated with language. This is because of the various aspects of language itself. Language involves speaking, writing, understanding, communicating, and more. The main regions of the brain that are involved with learning, understanding, and using language include:

  • Broca’s area 
  • Wernicke’s area
  • Motor cortex
  • Auditory cortex
  • Angular gyrus

Broca’s Area

The Broca’s area can be found in the left hemisphere of the brain. Scientists and neurologists attribute humans’ ability to speak and write in ways that make accurate sense to the Broca’s area. This is the case with languages learned at any point in life. 

The Broca’s area allows humans to articulate that learned language in both spoken and written words in order to communicate with others.

Wernicke’s Area

The Wernicke’s area resides in the brain’s cerebral and connects to the above Broca’s area through a neural pathway.

Where the Broca’s area allows humans to articulate language in sensical ways, the Wernicke’s area allows humans to understand, comprehend, and process the spoken and written language. 

Angular Gyrus

The angular gyrus is responsible for several functions, including those of complex language activity.

The angular gyrus allows people to make sense of words and numbers, read, write, and contextualize visually perceived language. 

Parts of the Brain Changed by Language Learning

In studies, language learning has been linked to growth in specific areas of the brain, including areas not traditionally associated with language.

For example, studies have shown that individuals who speak more than one language have increased growth in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex.

Hippocampus and Language Learning

Psychologists have not always considered language learning and memory to be directly linked. Both of these aspects are hugely important to the human experience, whether language is spoken, written, signed, or interpreted. However, only recently did scientists break through the barrier that kept memory and language as separate entities. 

Of course, memory is typically linked to learning anything that requires repetition and memorization. However, the human hippocampus that stores memories is actually fundamental in storing word associations necessary for using a learned language. 

The hippocampus is responsible for all of the following actions:

  • Storing logical associations based on previously learned language
  • Allowing people to relate the meanings of words to one another
  • Allowing people to find context in spoken and written words

The Role of Age in Language Learning

As mentioned above, children who learn a second language at a young age store that second language in their brain’s left hemisphere alongside their native language. This is because they are still learning their native language at the same time. The two languages are learned in tandem using the same skills and exercises. (For more information, I’ve written another article specifically about age and language learning.)

It has long been stated that learning a language is much easier for young children than for adolescents and adults. However, there are arguments that adults can actually learn additional languages more efficiently than young children can because adults have the means and extra knowledge to study and think critically, which children lack. 

  • Young children learn second languages more naturally
  • Adults learn second languages more quickly 
  • Young children will develop proper accents when learning second languages
  • Adults will grasp proper grammar more effectively

Overall, when studies show side-by-side comparisons between multilingual people who learn in early childhood versus people who learn as adults, the people who learned their second language as young children have a stronger overall grasp of the second language. Still, anyone can become completely fluent at any age with practice.

The Early Childhood Brain and Language Learning

For children that grow up in a multilingual household, learning multiple languages is unavoidable. It comes naturally when these children hear different languages spoken in their homes because they will pick up on language cues. This is true for babies and toddlers, even those who are not of speaking age yet.

Young children’s brains are so flexible that they can absorb languages like sponges. It is important to know that learning multiple languages will not hinder a child’s ability to learn their native language. At this young age, a child can learn a virtually unlimited amount of sound and meaning associations. Why not take advantage of it?

The Early Adolescent Brain and Language Learning

Expert Joseph Dick, the Director of the Second Language Learning Institute of Canada, determined that the most opportune time for a child to learn a second language is between the ages of 7 and 11 years old. This age range is perfect because, during this time, children possess the following characteristics that make language learning easier. 

  • More free time to learn
  • Less anxious about language
  • They can retain and command sound more strongly than younger children
  • They can intuit things and do not analyze too much

Children at this age who begin learning a second language are beginning to grasp skills that will aid them throughout their entire lives. The ability to multitask and take control over their tasks at hand will allow them to succeed in school and future jobs. 

The Teenage Brain and Language Learning

It is said that the teenage brain, or more accurately, the adolescent brain (ages 12-25), experiences an increase in neuroplasticity. At this time, the brain is craving information. Your brain wants to grow, meaning it wants you to get smarter. 

Teenage years are hard. Teens are busy. Between school, studying, extracurricular sports, dances, and relationships, learning a second language during this time might not be on everyone’s priority list. However, this is a highly beneficial time to do so. 

Learning a new language at this age has the unique function of increasing a person’s self-confidence. Many teenagers have a low view of their abilities. Boosting their confidence in their own intelligence can be incredibly helpful during puberty and all of the other dramatic and difficult events that occur during these formative years. 

The Adult Brain and Language Learning

Learning any new information strengthens and builds your brain. This is true at any age. Do not think that you have nothing to gain by learning a new language because you are no longer a toddler or an elementary school kid. 

A study at Penn State showed that adult volunteers learning Mandarin Chinese showed significant differences in their brain scans after a mere six weeks. 

  • The participants’ neural networks became more flexible
  • The participant’s brains built more integrated neural networks 
  • The participants had increased grey and white matter

The increased flexibility of the neural networks in people who know multiple languages and are in the process of learning a foreign language allows for faster learning of all kinds. These neural networks can go beyond efficient language learning and affect all kinds of information processing. 

The fact that these changes can occur in only six weeks’ time is astounding. Scientists are learning all the time how effective language learning is at changing and improving the brain’s makeup for people of all ages. 

The Elderly Brain and Language Learning

There is a reason so many doctors and scientists recommend that elderly people practice brain strengthening exercises during these years. With aging comes the fear of dementia and Alzheimer’s. These horrifically tragic diseases can wreak havoc on a person and their family, and no cures have been discovered at this time. 

Because language learning is connected to memory, as mentioned above, recent research shows that elderly brains can experience major benefits from the changes that occur during language learning. The increased neural pathways and brain plasticity can delay one’s development of cognitive diseases for years. 

Learning a second language in late adulthood presents the following cognitive benefits: 

  • Increased attention spans
  • Stronger ability to focus
  • Greater ability to read and comprehend text

It is important that you or any elderly loved ones you have know that it is never too late to begin learning a new language. The benefits are too fruitful to ignore. Until cures for dementia and Alzheimer’s are discovered, humans have to take charge of their own cognitive health with any possible opportunity. 

It is widely believed that second only to young children, aging and elderly people benefit the most from language learning due to the factors listed above. While language learning does not harm anyone, once an adult turns 25, the brain is done developing for the most part. Halting the effects of aging is when the major advantages begin anew. 

Language Learning Versus Other Learning

In Sweden, there is an academy called the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy. Here, recruits are tasked with learning a second language at rapid speeds in order to prepare for their duties. These recruits learn to speak fluently one of the following three languages in a matter of just over one year:

  • Arabic
  • Russian
  • Dari

The speed at which these recruits learn a new language with no prior experience whatsoever is astonishing. It is unlike anything most language learners would undertake anywhere else in the world. They study the new language every day, Monday through Sunday, morning to night time. 

To test whether the act of studying a second language would change the recruits’ brain structure, especially while learning at such a quick pace, researchers gave them MRI scans to track their brains’ development. The researchers used a control group of medical students who also studied and gained knowledge voraciously of other subjects. 

After three months of demanding study, the brains of the medical students stayed the same while the brains of the language learning recruits had grown. Both groups of students were taking in vast amounts of new information, but the recruits learning a new language were the only ones who experienced actual physiological brain growth. 

What Areas of the Brain Grew?

The MRI scans showed that the recruits who learned one of the three above languages had growth in three different parts of their brains:

  • The hippocampus
  • The superior temporal gyrus
  • The middle frontal gyrus

It is safe to say that someone who takes a language crash course over the span of three months does not equate to a person who learns a second language as a child or over a broader period later in life. Still, the effects of language learning on the brain are undeniable.

Language Learning Effects on Personality 

Learning and knowing languages beyond just one’s native language can also shape and change one’s personality and perception of the world. It is much easier to empathize and connect with others when you understand their language fluently. It is also easy to let preconceived attitudes slip into foreign your own language use. 

The culture of the language you speak also shapes how you think and behave while speaking it. Many English-speaking countries value individual achievement, while other cultures’ languages are more concerned with society as a whole. Some languages do not have verb tenses for the past, present, and future in the same way English does. 

If you have a brief encounter with a French-speaking person early in life, you may associate the language with that person. If you end up learning French as an adult, you can emulate how you perceived that person without even realizing it. If you thought they were fancy or elegant, you might speak French with a more sophisticated intonation. 

The changes language learning can have on your brain go beyond its physical makeup. Language learning can affect your personality and alter your perceptions about life and the world around you. It is possible to experience similar effects from language learning that you would from traveling the world. 

Final Talking Point on How Language Learning Affects the Brain

The human brain is astonishing. Its ability to grow and change based on the knowledge and experience humans have means that it is constantly altering itself to suit its own needs better. There are few things as beneficial to the brain as language learning.

Multilingual people score better than monolingual people in performance tests across the board. Whether you are thinking of teaching your child a second language or you are considering taking up a second language yourself, there are no downsides to language learning. 

Sources:

https://medium.com/swlh/the-effects-of-second-language-acquisition-on-the-brain-c13778b45a

https://www.whitbyschool.org/passionforlearning/learning-a-new-language-helps-brain-development

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-language-shapes-the-brain/

https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en/resource-centre/content/how-learning-languages-affects-our-brain

https://knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/how-second-language-can-boost-brain#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20learning%20a,such%20as%20for%20working%20memory.

https://www.weareteacherfinder.com/blog/what-happens-brain-learn-language/

https://www.yourtrainingedge.com/what-happens-in-the-brain-when-you-learn-a-language/

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00423/full

https://elearninginfographics.com/language-and-the-brain-infographic/

https://brainblogger.com/2016/02/29/how-do-we-learn-languages/

https://www.all-languages.org.uk/features/speaking-mind-links-languages-skills/

https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/multilingual-practices/0/steps/22658

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010945214001543

https://blog.chatterbug.com/en/how-does-age-affect-your-ability-to-learn-a-second-language/

https://news.berkeley.edu/2016/09/19/brains-hippocampus-helps-fill-in-the-blanks-of-language/

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/266995226.pdf

https://abccincy.org/how-language-learning-affects-a-childs-brain/

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/advantages_of_a_bilingual_brain

https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-how-learning-a-new-language-changes-your-brain-at-any-age

https://www.edutopia.org/article/teenage-brain-is-wired-to-learn-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers

https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/speech-language

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121008082953.htm

https://knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/how-second-language-can-boost-brain#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20learning%20a,such%20as%20for%20working%20memory.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

Recent Posts