The impact of language learning on brain health


In recent years, there has been an increase in research findings in the area of ​​language acquisition and its effects on the brain. This is particularly true with regard to the effects of bilingualism.

Language acquisition has been shown to impact neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to undergo structural changes in response to stimulus, behavioral experience, or cognitive demands. The link between neuroplasticity and language acquisition has been documented in the literature; evidence suggests that as a product of language learning and multiple language use, changes in brain anatomy are induced. These changes include the pattern of functional neurons and can occur rapidly and at any age.

The benefits of a bilingual brain – Mia Nacamulli

A 2012 study measured structural changes in the prefrontal and temporal cortices, specifically by looking at changes in gray matter density. Gray matter is made up of the cell bodies of neurons and this area is commonly associated with intelligence, attention, memory, and language processing. This contrasts with white matter, which is made up of bundles of axons, carrying nerve impulses between neurons, and serves primarily to connect different regions of gray matter; it therefore determines the speed of information processing as well as memory recall.

The participants followed an intensive German language course and were examined at the start of the stay and approximately 5 months later. The researchers demonstrated that the participants experienced an increase in gray matter that was not correlated with the degree of language proficiency; This indicated that this effect was directly attributable to the acquisition of a second language.

A similar study conducted in 2012 observed that cortical thickness over hippocampal volume was also increased in response to exposure to a second language – collectively, these studies concluded that language acquisition can increase density gray matter.

In an investigation of the effect of early language exposure on the brain, researchers compared Spanish-Catalan bilinguals exposed to two languages ​​throughout this development, and a group cohort matched Spanish monolinguals. The bilingual group works on the left to have a larger Heschel gyri compared to the monolinguals, a sign of a larger size of the auditory cortex. The researchers concluded that learning a second language is a causal factor in the increase in the size of the auditory cortex.

The effect of language learning on aging

Recent evidence has suggested that there is a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition – with later onset of dementia. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh used the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 to determine whether learning a second language might influence later cognitive performance. The disco stop offered the opportunity to address confounding variables such as ethnic and environmental differences.

The researchers found that bilinguals performed significantly better on tests taken between 2008 and 2010. The strongest effects were seen on general intelligence and reading. The overall results suggest a positive effect of bilingualism on cognition at older ages, including those who acquired a second language as adults.

The Bilingual Executive Advantage (BEA) hypothesis, that is, improved cognitive functions, especially executive functions, results from the ability to control more than one language system. This theory is controversial, and a recent systematic review, including 53 studies, does not apply to working memory. There is evidence supporting the bilingual effect in relation to cognitive flexibility. However, the inconsistent results found in the studies make it difficult to draw clear conclusions; further studies are still needed.

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The impact of an additional language on working memory

Working memory is defined as a mental workspace dedicated to the storage, processing and manipulation of information. One aspect of working memory involves the retention of information in a speech-based format called a phonological loop.

Bilinguals have been shown to outperform people who speak only one language on tasks requiring working memory. The response rate among those who can speak more than one language was more accurate in response to the trials, suggesting that bilinguals have an advantage in executive functioning. Bilingual participants could also outperform monolinguals in tests that required areas of the brain unrelated to language processing. This included visual-spatial range, suggesting that language acquisition may improve working memory beyond language processing

The impact of an additional language on verbal intelligence

Peal and Lambert published a paper in 1962 that was considered a seminal study highlighting the importance of controlling for multiple variables such as socioeconomic status, gender, and age, as well as the importance of standardized measures of bilingualism when selection of populations to be studied. In this particular study, in a comparison between bilingual and monolingual participants, bilinguals performed better than their monolingual counterparts on verbal and nonverbal tests; However, the difference was more pronounced in nonverbal tests.

The advantage conferred by bilingualism would be the result of greater mental flexibility and the ability to form concepts.

The impact of additional language on nonverbal intelligence

Nonverbal intelligence is defined as a set of cognitive and problem-solving skills applied to tasks that do not require the use of language. Examples of nonverbal tasks include reasoning, recognition of visual sequences, the ability to understand visual information, the ability to conceive of abstract ideas, and the ability to recognize visual cues in social contexts, i.e. say body language.

According to Maria Viorica, a pioneer of the concept of coactivation among bilingualists, understanding bilingual spoken language confers the ability to activate inhibitory regulation in the prefrontal cortex. Indeed, this area of ​​the brain must choose between 2 co-activated languages, that is to say capable of being spoken simultaneously. As a result, the bilingual brain is subject to continuous exercise and is therefore more capable of carrying out cognitive tasks thanks to better control of this area of ​​the brain.

However, a more recent study conducted in 2019 suggests that there are no major differences between matched bilingual and monolingual participants in nonverbal switching, and suggests that bilinguals may not have better cognitive control than monolinguals. .

The impact of speaking an additional language has several positive cognitive effects, with broad implications across a range of disciplines – including human brain health. Several studies have suggested that bilingualism can improve the cognitive function of their brains, producing greater cognitive control abilities, increased non-verbal and verbal abilities, increased perceptual sensitivity, and confers some protection against aging, including delaying onset of dementia.

The references:

  • Li P, Jeong H. (2020) The social brain of language: Rooting second language learning in social interaction. Nature. doi: 10.1038/s41539-020-0068-7.
  • Friesen DC, Bialystok E. Metalinguistic ability in bilingual children: the role of executive control. (2012) Riv Psycholinguist Appl.
  • Bak TH, Nissan JJ, Allerhand MM, Deary IJ. (2014) Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Anne Neurol. doi:10.1002/ana.24158.
  • Mårtensson J, Eriksson J, Bodammer NC, et al. (2012) Growth of language-related brain areas after learning a foreign language. Neuroimage. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.043.
  • Bialystok E, Craik FI, Luk G. (2012) Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain. Trends Cogn Sci. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.03.001.
  • Pliatsikas C, Pereira Soares SM, Voits T, et al. (2021) Bilingualism is a long-term cognitively stimulating experience that modulates metabolite concentrations in the healthy brain. Sci doi:10.1038/s41598-021-86443-4

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