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How Learning A New Language Can Change Your Brain Structure

How Learning A New Language Can Change Your Brain Structure

The impact of learning a new language

Learning a new language doesn’t just make life easier when you go on vacation or talk with colleagues from other backgrounds. It also has far-reaching neurological consequences. In this article, you will discover which parts of the brain undergo physical changes when you learn how to speak a foreign language, and why these changes can be so beneficial.

Which parts of the brain are changed?

Learning a new language is a great way to keep your brain functioning at optimum capacity. In 2012, a group of Swiss researchers found that the process of learning a foreign language has discernible effects on the cerebral cortex.[1] After just three months of learning a new language, adult volunteers showed a thickening in this part of the brain, which is responsible for memory, learning, consciousness and language use. Although the study only investigated the effects of three months’ worth of lessons rather than years, the results are still encouraging for those who would like to train their brains to remain active into old age.

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Research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) has also shown that learning a language exerts a direct impact on the brain. The researchers were interested in examining the interactions between a person’s experience of learning a new language and their genetic profile.

Research Background

79 Chinese students studying in the US were recruited to take part. They were split into two groups. One group embarked on a three-week immersive English language course, and the other was used as a control group. The researchers used MRI technology to track the changes occurring within the white matter of the brain, especially in areas responsible for language processing.

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Key Findings

They uncovered two key findings.[2] Firstly, immersion in language classes greatly increased brain connections within white matter, and this effect dropped off after students completed the course. Second, a student’s degree of success at learning a language could be predicted by looking at which variation of a specific gene (the COMT gene) they were found to be carrying.

This study only examined the experiences of one ethnic group learning one particular language, but it nonetheless underlines the fact that two people who go to the same classes and take the same approach to learning a language may differ in how readily they pick it up.

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What’s the best way to learn a new language?

It has never been so easy to pick up a new language. With a plethora of apps available, you can start learning a new language in a way that suits you. There are many language courses to download for little or no charge. For example, Duolingo offers completely free language instruction in 21 languages including Spanish, French and Hebrew.

Another option is Busuu, which aims to help students learn a new language in 10-minute bitesize lessons. They state on their site that 22.5 hours of Busuu teaching can equate to a semester of college-level language study. Babbel is another popular choice, offering online tuition in 14 languages including Turkish and Russian. It has a clean, simple interface designed to help you pick up vocabulary in a short space of time.

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To supplement your language learning, you can also try apps that allow you to interact with native speakers. This can help consolidate your new knowledge. HiNative allows you to connect and chat with speakers of almost any language. HelloTalk is another good option. It allows you to make contact with speakers of over 100 languages and promises that you will soon pick up their language in an intuitive, natural way.

Finally, flashcards and games are also invaluable aids to support you in your language learning. MindSnacks prides itself on creating fun and educational games suitable for all ages. This lets you play games and feel productive at the same time! Memrise have a similar mission. On the front page of their website they claim that they make language learning “so full of joy and life, you’ll laugh out loud.” If you want to support your learning via a more traditional method, try TinyCards. This app, created by the Duolingo team, offers you a quick and easy way to check up on your vocabulary skills.

However you choose to learn a language, enjoy yourself and remember that not only will you be having fun and enhancing your skill set but you will also be setting your brain up for a mentally healthy and active old age.

Reference

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22750568
[2] http://www.pnas.org/content/113/26/7249.abstract

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Jay Hill

Jay writes about communication and happiness on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”

      Example

      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Artofmemory.com. Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.

        Example

        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.

        C

        J

        H

        D

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        P

        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.

        Cubs

        Just

        Hate

        Doing

        Push-ups

        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to Artofmemory.com, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.

          Example

          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe

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          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.

            Example

            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?

            081127882

            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.

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            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.

              Example

              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via unsplash.com

              Reference

              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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