There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world as of today, there might be more undoubtedly. What is fascinating about these statistics is that it goes to show that we humans have developed communicational vocals very differently depending on the regions we lived on as we evolved. Furthermore, it is not just the language, but it is often observed that if a bilingual person starts speaking, quite a prominent change can be observed in their behaviors as they alternate between two languages. This begs the question, does our brain changes as we are learning a new language? As some brain functionality couldn’t be seen prior to it.
Before we get to answer that question, we must understand the plastic nature of our brains. Well, our brains are not made out of plastic per se but we use the word plasticity in reference to neuroplasticity and its ability to change its functionality and structure over time with repetitive or new experiences. Unlike other organs of the body which only see a change once they are diseased or aging, the brain undergoes constant change as it is not static. We just don’t realize how much capable our brain is, from our slightest physical movement to intense emotion our brain is responsible for it. With the advancements in modern science and technology, scientists were actually able to see within the workings of the brain as it underwent the change without cutting it open. Other than experience, other factors such as aging, drugs, and emotions also change the plasticity of the brain.
Impacts of a New language on the Brain
In order to learn a new language, one person has to undergo various changes, both in their behavior as well as their attention, unlike memorizing academics learning a new language require a different kind of attention as it allows you not only to focus on certain aspects but also allows you the ability to ignore unimportant information. Also, once a new language has been learned it is automatically switched on when needed even without a conscious decision. However, despite this their brain is constantly working to stop them from saying a word in a different language.
- Prefrontal Cortex: This area is fairly new in the terms of evolution and it is what separates us from the primates, despite that it is an essential part of our brain. As not only it makes us who we are, thanks to it we are able to do advanced processing and learning; it is responsible for linking various words to their meanings, and in various studies, it was observed that as a person begins to learn a new language this area of the brain starts to change structurally. Learning a new language requires one to perform this task over and over in order to make any sense of the new language. Perhaps that’s the reason why multilingual people have better reasoning and the ability to process information.
- The Gray and White Matter: As you might be familiar with neurons, the cells that are in the nervous system, consisting of an axon, dendrites, and a cell body. Neurons act like messengers for the body, as they send information from the brain to the body and back via electrical impulses. The gray matter is a tissue that represents how many cell bodies and dendrites are present at any given time, and significant growth in the gray matter has been observed upon learning a new language. A higher amount of gray matter is an indication of a healthy brain. As for the White matter, it is found in the deeper tissues of the brain and it contains nerve fibers which are an extension of axons, also a sheath layer of fatty substance that coats the axon is called myelin and myelin give it this distinct white color. It is also responsible for the fast and efficient travel of electrical impulses from the nerves to the brain. Adding a new language in your life, allows these white matter to grow stronger which results in better communication among neurons and overall better responsiveness. Simply put, a new language reinforces the bridge between neurons.
- Fight-off Disorders: Our brain is one muscle that we cannot get to work out, not the one that we think of at least. But our brain just like any other part of our body requires exercise, while puzzles and problem-solving are some ways we can keep our mental abilities in check, the easiest and fun way is to learn a new language. Although, it is an ongoing hypothesis according to scientists by learning a new language one can boost certain parts of their brain despite aging which allows one to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay. Evidence of this has already been seen, as a study conducted in India, in which 648 patients were observed over a long time, among these 391 were bilingual and it was observed that these 391 patients developed dementia after 5 years of people who only spoke a single language.
So to answer the question, does learning a new language changes brain functionality? Yes, it most certainly does, and in a positive manner. Teaching new languages to children must be on the curriculum of every school, and as for adults, if you have some free time on your hands just pick up a new language. This is a proven way to improve the brain’s function.