Want to Be Smart? Learn a Foreign Language


In an interconnected world, being multilingual helps you forge valuable global connections and increase your chances of making it big in the world of business. But being multilingual is good for your brain too.

In a recent study, scientists report that people who speak two languages have more gray matter in the executive control region of their brains—the area that controls higher cognitive processes like thinking, analyzing, making connections, and synthesizing information—than monolinguals. The findings of this study corroborate and bolster data from earlier investigations that suggested bilingualism can not only improve brain functioning but also keep age-related neural disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia at bay.

Bilingualism and brain function

The above-mentioned study was conducted on Spanish-English bilinguals, bilinguals of spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL), and English monolinguals. The scientists found that the Spanish-English bilinguals had greater volumes of gray matter than the other two groups.

This finding also answers why bilingual people have more gray matter than monolinguals. According to the researchers, managing two spoken languages—switching from one to another seamlessly—gives the brain a workout and increases neural flexibility. Bilinguals who are fluent in two tongues have to constantly process two languages and instantly choose which language to speak in to best express their thoughts.

In fact, this is the reason why bilinguals are also better at filtering out irrelevant information and processing greater volumes of data than monolinguals. After all, their brains get vigorous exercise constantly. This also explains why the bilinguals of spoken English and ASL did not have more gray matter than the monolinguals despite being able to speak and sign together.

Several studies have been carried out on the superior mental abilities of bilingual people. According to one study, bilingual people are NOT smarter than monolinguals. It is just that certain areas of the brains of bilingual people are more developed than those who speak only one language. That is because, the bilinguals are merely more expert in one task than monolingual people.

During this study, one group of subjects was made to intensively study a foreign language within 13 months. The control group too studied hard, but subjects other than languages. The fMRI scans showed that the subjects who studied languages had greater growth in the cerebral cortex region than the control group. The hippocampus too, grew in size amongst the language learners.

More studies corroborate the above findings. The more you use various regions of your brain, the stronger they become. The fMRI scans of native English subjects who were made to learn Chinese showed improved brain networks after six weeks of language lessons. These subjects showed stronger connections between various areas of the brain after learning a new language.

The anti-aging benefits of learning a new language

The above-mentioned language studies confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain. What is encouraging is that the brain can develop across ages and learning a second language helps in this growth. The brains of elderly subjects showed positive anatomical changes and functional development after they learned a new language.

Another study demonstrated that adults who learn a new language also exhibit positive changes in white matter. The subjects in the study were healthy adults. They showed changes in white matter volume in the frontal lobe of their brains, a region that was, till now, not thought to be involved in language processing activities.

The positive changes in the structure and functionality of adult brains indicate that there are anti-aging benefits of learning a new language. Learning a foreign language imparts a protective effect on memory. One study have shown that, after taking into account factors like education, occupation, gender, and where the subjects resided (urban vs. rural), bilingual subjects with dementia manifested symptoms about 4.5 years later than monolinguals with dementia.

In another study, it was found that bilingual subjects had delayed onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease than unilingual subjects despite the former group exhibiting twice as much atrophy in those regions of their brains associated with the disease than those who spoke one language. The scientists involved in the study believe that because the bilinguals had brains that were constantly exercising, the neural pathways were well-developed and strong enough to keep away the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease for longer periods.

The anti-aging benefits of learning a foreign language were also documented in other studies. It was noted that bilingual seniors show greater cognitive facilities than those elderly people who speak only one language. The bilingual seniors completed the same tasks faster than the monolingual subjects belonging to the same age group. What is more, the bilingual group completed the tasks without spending more energy in the frontal regions of the brain, an area associated with executive functionalities. This indicates the bilingualism has lifelong neural benefits.

Bilingual toddlers are smarter than their monolingual peers

It is never too late to start improving, but learning a new language can give toddlers a substantial edge over their peers. In a study carried out on 24-month-old children, it was found that those toddlers who were exposed to a second language during infancy had greater cognitive abilities along with bigger vocabularies in both languages than their monolingual peers. These findings turn on its head the traditional belief that exposing infants to two languages confuses them.

Not all parents can pick up a new language and start conversing in it for the sake of their kids. But these findings have implications for curriculum designers and education planners. As for the adults, it is never too late to start attending a language class or taking lessons from a friend who speaks a different language.


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Image via XiXinXing / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing.
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