By Audrey Throne
Languages are pathways into new cultures, experiences, relationships, and deepen our understanding of the world. Anyone with first-hand experience of acquiring a new language will undoubtedly attest to the umpteen advantages that multilingualism offers in practical life.
These merits include heightened concentration, conversational abilities, discipline, and improved skills of focus. However, recent studies have unveiled that multilingualism or bilingualism also has extensive cognitive benefits that are directly proportional to the effort that you put into learning new languages.
The underlying reason for this is that understanding a language is one of the most difficult functions that your brain can perform and therefore acquiring and utilizing a new tongue gives your brain a rigorous workout – making it stronger in the process.
These researches have refuted the prevailing misconceptions that bilingual upbringing of children causes confusion and causes a decline in academic performance. Multilingualism in fact leads to numerous cognitive advantages including increased intelligence, enhanced decision-making and problem-solving and even warding off degenerative cognitive ailments such as dementia.
Polyglots also tend to score higher on intelligence tests, perform well academically, are less likely to be misled by political and marketing campaigns, handle conflicts objectively and are intelligent spenders. Let’s take a deeper look into how learning an altogether new tongue can pave the way for a healthier brain:
1. Mental agility and attention
A study conducted at the University of Edinburgh has found that learning a new language even for a brief period of time leads to an increase in mental agility.
The research team analyzed 33 students between the ages of 18-78 who had taken a one-week course on then Scottish Gaelic and discovered that several aspects of their mental alertness had enhanced after the course. The test group was compared to a group that took a non-language course and one that didn’t take any course at all.
Another research has indicated that multilingualism makes people better listeners. The reason for this is that knowing multiple languages requires the brain to actively discern between two very distinct speech sounds and accurately identify.
This not only enhances your ability to comprehend what others are saying but also makes polyglots more focused, receptive, attuned to their environment and attentive. These improved abilities also allow polyglots to learn a third language much more quickly as compared to a monolingual attempting to learn a second language. Moreover, speaking in a foreign language requires your brain to actively suppress the other languages that it knows and in the process improves your ability to filter out distractions.
It is a common occurrence for polyglots to switch quickly between languages in order to communicate and it is for this reason that their minds become proficient in switching between multiple tasks. A study conducted at the Pennsylvania State University that assessed the multitasking abilities of bilingual speakers found them to outperform monolinguals while undertaking multiple assignments simultaneously.
The reason for this proficiency in switching tasks was traced back to the cognitive ability of bilinguals to juggle around two languages at once. According to the research team, the effort that goes into handling two languages simultaneously resembles a mental gymnasium that trains the brain to identify and assess priorities quickly.
3. Problem solving
Communicating in a foreign tongue demands creativity and swift problem-solving as you are often faced with unique situations that require you to improvise on your vocabulary to communicate effectively.
This causes polyglots to excel at problem-solving as well as creativity as compared to monolinguals. Such a trait allows polyglots to excel in academics as well as office settings that often require people to use innovative techniques and improvisation in order to solve problems.
4. Decision making
Research conducted at the University of Chicago unveiled that when we use a foreign language to weigh the various options of a decision we act much more rationally and objectively.
The reason for this is that framing our thoughts in a foreign language causes a wider cognitive and emotional gap in the assessment of risks and consequently diminishes loss aversion. This allows polyglots to make decisions quickly and in an unbiased manner.
As mentioned earlier, multiple languages exist side by side in the brain and therefore require the brain to actively suppress other languages and retrieve information related to the language that you need to use.
This constant functioning gives your brain a good workout and also improves memory. A research carried out at Luxembourg found that multilingualism has a protective effect on memory and reduces the risk of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease as well as other forms of dementia.
This protective effect of multilingualism was found to be of a compounding nature as the risk of cognitive ailments was found to be the lowest in seniors who were proficient in four or more languages. So, if your family has a history of cognitive ailments such as dementia, it’s probably a good idea to spend time in learning a couple of your favorite foreign languages.
6. Brain size
As astonishing as it may sound, acquiring a new language has been proven to increase the size of your hippocampus (the brain region responsible for developing, storing and recalling memories) as well as the brain’s language center.
This is due to the fact that when we learn a new tongue, our brains develop new neural pathways leading to expansion of brain size. A recent study has found that the acquisition of a second language enhances cortical thickness only if it is attained after acquiring thorough proficiency in a first language.
This was a startling revelation as cortical thickness is directly associated with high levels of intelligence. Moreover, the study also found that the greater the time lag between the two languages the greater the amount of increase in brain structure.
Similar results were found by another study that was conducted by the Swedish Armed Forces. The study analyzed recruits who intensively studied a foreign language and found that the size of their hippocampus as well as three areas of their cerebral cortex increased when viewed in MRI scans.
Additionally, a research conducted at the Georgetown University Medical Center concluded that bilinguals who frequently use both languages possess more grey matter. This increased amount of grey matter leads to enhanced intelligence, attention as well as short-term memory.
7. Health aging
As already mentioned above individuals who keep their minds fit by learning new languages have a lesser propensity of developing cognitive diseases such as dementia. Moreover, it has also been found that seniors can effectively delay the onset of such ailments by at least 5years by learning a new tongue.
This is due to the fact that bilinguals are more economic in their use of cognitive resources while processing information in the sense that they used less brain power to complete tasks. This economic use of brain regions in turn allows their minds to reserve power and age better as compared to monolinguals.
A recent study analyzed the performance of interference control tasks of bilinguals and monolinguals by allocating in an attempt to identify which group was better at weeding out unnecessary distractions to complete assigned tasks.
Both groups were given the task of focusing on the color of objects while ignoring their positions. The study found that bilinguals used less circuitry while monolinguals were found to engage multiple regions of the brain in order to complete the given task.
The regions used by monolinguals included multiple areas of the frontal lobe that controlled motar and visual functions as well as interference control.
The reason for this optimum use of brain regions is due to the fact that bilinguals manage interference between two languages on a daily basis and therefore become experts at ignoring irrelevant information and focusing on pertinent information.
It was also observed that bilingual brains conserved brain power by engaging only those regions that specialize in performing a particular task. Moreover, another factor that facilitates healthy aging in polyglots is the fact that they are able to achieve the same outcomes as monolinguals without having to engage the frontal regions of the brain which are more prone to the effects of aging.
Multilingualism which has long been thought of as a trophy skill is now resurfacing as an essential endeavor for anyone who seeks to achieve excellence in academic and work settings and wishes to reduce the risk of cognitive ailments.
The most encouraging fact unveiled by the ongoing research efforts is that the cognitive benefits of learning a new tongue are not bound to a specific age group or level of proficiency and can be reaped at any stage.
Moreover, these benefits begin to manifest themselves even after a brief attempt to acquire a new language and increase yet further with an increase in the number of languages a person masters. So, if you have a passion for new cultures or a thirst to be the smartest person in the room; immersing yourself in an exotic foreign language might just be what you need.