Swedish scientists have discovered that learning a foreign language indeed has a visible effect on the size of our brains.
A group of young adult military recruits were drafted in to take part in a study in Sweden. The test subjects were split into two distinct groups – those who were learning a foreign language and those who were not.
Swedish military recruits are often expected to go from having no prior knowledge of a foreign language to speaking it fluently within just over twelve months. Some of the languages are complex and challenging – such as Arabic, Dari and Russian – and therefore an intense rate of learning is often required.
Using the latest in magnetic resonance imaging and electrophysiological technology, Johan Mårtensson, a psychological researcher at Lund University in Sweden was amazed by the results.
The MRI scans suggested that as the language course progressed, the brains of the language students showed some significant proportional development, whereas the brain structures of the placebo group remained unchanged.
Johan Mårtensson said, “It was surprising that different parts of the test subject’s brains developed to differing degrees, depending on how well the students had performed and how much effort they had put in to keeping on top of the course content.
“The students with the greatest growth in the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex – areas which relate to language learning – had more advanced language skills than the other students. Similarly, in the students who had put more effort into their learning, greater growth was seen in an area of the ‘motor’ region of the cerebral cortex.
“The results showed us that the areas of the brain in which we saw the changes take place are somehow linked to how easy an individual finds it to learn a language.”
Despite how we as individuals prefer to learn, be it visually, linguistically, auditorily or kinesthetically, this recent brain-based research provides good news. It’s widely acknowledged that people who speak more than one language with fluency, have stronger memories and are more cognitively and mentally diverse than their monolingual counterparts.
Separate studies carried out in Canada suggest that Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia appear to be diagnosed later for bilinguals than for monolinguals, meaning that having knowledge of a second language could help us to stay cognitively healthy well into our later years.
Johan Mårtensson concludes, “Of course, we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, but there is a lot to suggest that learning a new language is a good way to keep the brain in shape.”