How Learning a Language Increases Brain Size
Life long learning is something to be applauded. When I meet people, I’m always more impressed by their experiences and skills than any possessions they have or salary they make. I just find them far more interesting.
And if they can speak another language, I’m always intrigued. To me it’s the equivalent of playing an instrument, only the art is language. And I know it takes time and dedication.
As far as the brain is concerned, it can also bring a number of benefits. One of those documented benefits is an increase in your brain’s gray matter.
So let’s take a look at how learning languages increases your brain size.
It really is as simple as comparing brain volumes between people that speak more than one language and those who don’t. I guess brain science isn’t exactly rocket science.
So that’s what researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center did. Their research began by looking at the differences in volume between English speakers and those who spoke both English and Spanish.
Sure enough, the dual linguists had bigger brains. Specifically, they had more gray matter in the frontal and parietal brain areas – which are associated with your executive functions.
The scientists wanted to take the research a step further, though. What exactly was it that caused the increase in these brain structures? Was it managing two separate languages, or was it the use of two separate vocabularies?
To answer the question they had to get a bit creative. Again, they brought in people who spoke English and Spanish. The other group, though, were people who spoke English and used sign language.
This way they could better identify what was causing the volume difference. While they both have two vocabularies, the big difference is that the people who sign can also speak at the same time.
The study’s lead author, Olumide Olulade, summed up the results by saying:
“Unlike the findings for the Spanish-English bilinguals, we found no evidence for greater gray matter in the ASL-English bilinguals. Thus we conclude that the management of two spoken languages in the same modality, rather than simply a larger vocabulary, leads to the differences we observed in the Spanish-English bilinguals.”
It seems that one of the keys to the increased brain size comes down to the fact that you have to speak the second language. And it’s here where you get the volume boost in your prefrontal brain.
The details of their 2015 study were published online in Cerebral Cortex.
Although the study adds to the evidence of the bilingual advantage there’s still a bit of a debate. Because results of some studies on bilingual people have shown relatively no advantage, some argue that it doesn’t exist. Even when an advantage is shown, the causes or mechanism behind that advantage is not agreed upon.
This study builds on the work of other research in finding benefits for people who speak more than one language. The areas of the brain where they are noticing the difference in this study – the prefrontal cortex – is associated with our executive control functions.
What would be the possible benefit from this?
The executive functions in your brain cover a number of skills. Most importantly, they are the key ingredients in helping you live an independent life as a member of society.
Executive function is associated with skills like planning, reasoning, cognitive control, task switching, and attention. It seems the skills needed for using two languages engages a lot of the same functions for your higher thinking. Which doesn’t surprise me, because learning a language can be pretty tough.
Further studies will find out more about the benefits of using more than one language. For now, we know they definitely have bigger brains.
Learning another language doesn’t come easy. It takes time, patience, and perseverance. It doesn’t happen overnight, let alone a year or more!
Here’s the good news, though. There are plenty of free resources and apps around the web to get you started. For example, Duolingo is an immensely popular free app that comes in a variety of languages. But there’s also websites and other resources if you search for them.
Language learning is tough, but can be very brain rewarding.
Image: World Bank