You started learning a new language a while ago. You went through the beginning stages of learning vocabulary and learned some grammatical basics so you could start forming your first sentences. Finally you also have started to deep dive into the culture of the countries the newly learned language is spoken in: you started listening to songs, watching movies or TV shows and had your first conversations. Did it ever happen to you that, out of nowhere a random noun you learned in that new language came to mind? Or did it ever occur, that you could better remember a certain phrase because you heard it in that new TV-show you started binge-watching in its original language?
Why is that? Does our memory capacity increase when we learn a new language? More generally; what happens to our brain when we learn a new language?
Learning new languages can have a significant impact on our brain, leading to various cognitive and neurological changes. Funnily enough, some experts used to believe that growing up bilingual could cause cognitive problems later in life. However, recent research has shown that bilingualism can actually benefit our brain, especially as we get older. And even if you learn a language later in life, you can still experience some of these neurological advancements. Learning a new language involves novelty and regular practice, which form new connections in the brain and strengthen the nervous system.
Let’s have a closer look into the areas of the brain that benefit as we learn a language.
The hippocampus is a part of our brain that's located deep inside, near the center, and it helps us form and store new memories - Think of the hippocampus as your brain's personal librarian. It helps you organize and keep track of memories. When you want to recall something, the hippocampus helps you retrieve the information and brings it back into your awareness. Learning a new language requires memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, and pronunciation – which stimulates the hippocampus. As a result, language learners often develop improved memory and recall abilities. For instance, they may remember new words, phrases, or concepts more easily in daily conversations or while studying.
Let's say you've been learning Mandarin Chinese for several months. As part of your language learning journey, you engage in activities like vocabulary drills, practicing conversations, and reading Chinese texts. Over time, you notice some changes in your daily life that indicate a strengthened hippocampus: Improved vocabulary, for example when you realize you recall new Chinese words more easily. You realize you experience an increased adaptability to Chinese-speaking environments, or you can better recall previously encountered language situations. Those are all signs, that your hippocampus has been practicing and was thereby trained to perform better.
The broca's area is a special part of our brain that helps us speak and understand language. It's located in the frontal lobe, which is the front part of our brain, slightly on the left side for most people. The Broca’s area comes into action when we want to communicate, it helps us produce speech and comprehend language. When learning a new language, individuals engage this area to acquire and produce the correct sounds and structures of the target language. As a practical example, language learners may initially struggle with pronunciation or experience difficulties expressing themselves fluently, but with practice, they develop greater proficiency in speaking by strengthening their broca's area.
Ever noticed how the more you study one language, the more fluently you speak it? Your processing speed increases and you get more confident in having a conversation in the new foreign language? That’s all thank to the Broca’s Area.
The Wernicke’s area is located in the temporal lobe, which is on the side of our brain, towards the top of it. It has a special function in understanding and interpreting language. When we hear someone speaking or read words, the Wernicke's area helps us process and make sense of the sounds or written symbols. This area helps us recognize words and understand their meanings. Additionally it puts words together to form meaningful sentences and is responsible for comprehending the overall message. Language learners activate this area while decoding and interpreting the meaning of words, sentences, and conversations in the new language. As a result, learners gradually improve their ability to comprehend spoken or written language in real-life situations, such as following instructions, understanding conversations, or reading books.
Ever noticed how the more you study one language, the more you are able to interpret and understand nuances of a new language? That you start recognizing subtle differences in intonation, tone, or context that convey different meanings? That is your Wernicke Area working.
The prefrontal cortex is involved in various higher-order cognitive functions, including attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. Language learning requires focused attention, as learners need to concentrate on new sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. Consequently, language learners often enhance their attentional control and cognitive flexibility, enabling them to switch between languages and adapt to different linguistic contexts effectively.
You could notice for example how you become more skilled at multitasking between different language-related tasks, the more you study a new language. Let’s say you have been studying German for a while. With time, you get better at simultaneously listening to German audio, taking notes, and responding to questions in German. You find it easier to switch between speaking, listening, reading, and writing tasks. This enhanced ability to multitasking indicates the strengthened functioning of the prefrontal cortex.
Executive function refers to the ability to control and manage our attention, plan, and ignore irrelevant information. Learning a new language can positively impact our executive functions, including working memory, cognitive control, and problem-solving skills. As language learners navigate between languages, they develop greater mental flexibility, multitasking abilities, and the capacity to inhibit irrelevant information.
You might have experienced that after spending a certain amount of time in a foreign country, you start thinking in the local language. That’s when your executive functions are being strengthened. Bilingual people as well constantly manage the two languages in their mind, ensuring they don't mix up words or languages inappropriately. Even though it seems overwhelming, these skills can extend beyond language learning and have practical applications in areas like academic performance, professional endeavors, and daily life challenges.
Thanks to all those enhanced cognitive abilities, learning new languages also benefits other areas of your life. You may have noticed as you progressed in your language learning journey, you become more confident in holding conversations with native speakers. You can express yourself in a new way, which again helps you form new social connections. As another surplus it can enhance travel experiences, help you gain more cultural understanding and increase your opportunities in life.
The benefits of language learning extend to all areas of life, whether by enriching personal, social, and professional relationships or by exercising your brain and developing cognitive skills. Regardless of whether you're a language learner or a teacher, speaking a second language is a valuable skill that brings different advantages throughout life.