This is your brain on a foreign language

Posted September 15

Loading your brain with a foreign language or two appears to make you a better thinker, giving parents another reason to study French or Spanish along with their children each night.

Researchers in Russian and Finland used electroencephalography, or EEG, to observe neural activity in 22 young adults who had attended Finland's famed public schools, where children learn at least two foreign languages. In addition to Finnish, the participants spoke either English, Swedish, German, Latin, Danish or Greek, according to Catharine Paddock of Medical News Today.

When participants listened to familiar and unfamiliar words, both in Finnish and other languages, the researchers analyzed how quickly they processed the words, based on how their brains lit up in the scans. The young adults who had learned the most languages had more nimble brains that were better able to process new words and sounds, the researchers said in a report published in the journal Scientific Reports.

This was true even when participants had studied foreign languages between the ages of 9 and 15, which some research indicates is late for new language acquisition, the report said.

"These results indicate that the brain’s readiness to develop new memory circuits for novel words of familiar or unfamiliar phonology is affected by the availability and extent of pre-existing networks for different languages," the authors wrote.

Of course, having a nimble brain makes it easier to learn more languages in the first place, which could be one reason that the two are related. But the study adds to existing research that shows positive outcomes for learning another language, both in childhood and as an adult.

Learning in childhood, of course, is optimal, which is why it's sometimes suggested that foreign-language instruction begin at birth. "To learn two languages, children need to be exposed to consistent quality language use in both tongues," says Dr. Naomi Steiner, a Boston pediatrician and author of "7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child."

Steiner encourages parents to "learn along your baby," or re-learn as the case may be.

Although nearly all U.S. high schools offer foreign-language classes, fewer than 1 percent of Americans can carry on a conversation in a language they studied in high school, and one barrier to picking it back may be a lack of confidence in our abilities, according to The Atlantic.

“It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible," Richard Brecht, executive director of the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, College Park, told Amelia Friedman, writing for The Atlantic.

While learning a language is harder as we age, it's still possible (although it's unlikely that anyone will ever mistake you for a native). There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and trying to learn any of them may even help stave off dementia for a few years.

Researchers studying the onset of Alzheimer's in 648 patients found that bilingual people developed dementia nearly five years later than those who knew just one language.

Plus, being a monoglot just sounds like something we all might want to avoid.


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