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How Learning A New Language Can Change Your Brain Structure

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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.

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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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