When you decided to learn a new language, you probably weren’t thinking about brain health. More likely you chose Spanish because you love Spain in the summer. Or you chose Japanese because you’re an anime fan. Well, learning a new language kills two birds with one stone. You get to chat with the locals after waking up from a summer siesta in Spain and you get a ton of brain health benefits.
When you learn a new skill, you change the structure of your brain. And learning a new language is no different. You might think you’re just trying to watch your favorite anime in Japanese but you’re also changing your brain's structure. Your brain is flexible and ever-changing. It turns out one of the best ways to keep it this way is learning a new language.
In this article, you can find out all about the brain health benefits of learning a new language.
The brain health benefits of learning a new language
Brain science is complex (and way above my pay grade) so let’s see what the experts say.
There’s a bunch of research into bilingualism from a young age which demonstrates how powerful learning a new language can be. And there’s also some brain science research that looks at learning a new language later in life. Here are some of the key findings. Bear with me as this might get a little science-y.
The effects of bilingualism from a young age
Kids who grow up in a multilingual home learn more than one language naturally. They don’t need a language app or phrasebook. And this early learning and contact with multiple languages has huge benefits.
Research shows that bilingualism from childhood leads to more development of the subcortical brain network. This plays a role in memory, emotion, pleasure, and hormone production. So it's kind of a big deal.
Early bilinguals are people who have understood two languages since being a small child. They have more gray matter density than people who only know one language or people who learned a second language later in life. More gray matter density means better cognitive function and less chance of dementia.
If you think it’s just the gray matter that gets all the good stuff, you’re wrong. White matter is also stronger with more integrity in bilinguals. White matter plays a role in problem-solving, decision-making, mood, walking, and balance.
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The effects of learning a new language at any age
But what about the people of the world who weren’t lucky enough to grow up in an environment with multiple languages I hear you say. Don’t worry — they get a ton of benefits too.
Learning a new language is like doing a complex puzzle. You need to make connections between words, fit them into sentences, and use the parts to convey meaning. This is as tough as it sounds and is a great exercise for your brain. So it makes sense that brain training like this gives benefits.
All bilinguals benefit from doing this puzzle, even if you started learning your second language in your 30s. But it is worth noting that more bilingual means more benefits. So a person who’s been speaking three languages since elementary school gets more benefits than a person who started in their 30s. The late learner still gets some benefits but they aren’t as significant as the early learner.
Here are some of the big benefits later language learners get too.
Learning a second language improves your memory. If you’re like me and you can never remember where you put your wallet or keys, learning a language might be a good idea. But again, the longer you spend as a bilingual, the bigger the benefit — in this case, better memory recall.
Learning a second language increases your attention span. People talk about social media shortening our attention spans — well, you can fight back by learning a language. Bilinguals of any age show an improvement in attention and concentration compared to monolinguals.
Learning a second language can keep your brain healthy as you get older. Dementia is a serious condition that affects 55 million people worldwide. Being bilingual helps maintain your level of cognitive function as you age and delays dementia.
The best time to start learning a new language was years ago — the second best is today
Much of the research shows that starting to learn a new language earlier leads to bigger brain health benefits. So don’t wait — there‘s no time like today to start learning a new language.
You should think of learning a new language as exercise for your brain. Treat your brain like a muscle and strengthen it with language learning. It’s one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy and protect it as you age.
As far as reasons to learn a new language go, it’s not one of the most glamorous. Ordering food in a Parisian restaurant in French is obviously much cooler. Watching a trendy Italian movie without subtitles is better for showing off on social media. And knowing all 2,663 Mandarin Chinese characters needed to pass the HSK test is an achievement you can be proud of.
But brain health may be one of the best long-term reasons to learn a new language, as you’ll be seeing the benefits well into old age.
Ways to train your brain in a new language
Here are some fun things that are proven to keep your brain on its toes that you can do in your new language..
When you cook, you use all the senses (which is great for your brain) and you can follow recipes in whatever language you’re learning.
This challenging puzzle took the world by storm and is now available in several languages.
Meeting up with friends is a great way to stay active. Do it with a language exchange buddy and you get some authentic language practice too.
This old-school puzzle is great for training your brain and you can find them in tons of languages.
5. Physical activity
Moving your body is one of the best ways to keep your brain active. For example, you could go for a walk listening to your new language. Or even better, you could join a hiking group with some native speakers.
6. Learning new words
When you learn new words, write them down and make sure you use them. This is a great way to train your memory.
7. Teaching your new language to friends and family
Don’t just learn new words and grammar, teach them. This challenging activity trains the brain. Plus you’ll get a deeper understanding of what you’ve been studying. It’s a win-win.
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