Netdoctor & Patient Info

Learning a language really can make you smarter

And the older you get, the more it helps

Learning a foreign language can undoubtedly be a source of pride. Whether it’s something you’re only likely to need on holiday, or whether it’s something more essential to your day-to-day life, it enables you to master new environments, better understand different cultures and ingratiate yourself with the locals.

The benefits, however, go beyond being able to order ‘dos cervezas’ at a Spanish bar, or rattling off a list of German swear words. According to a wealth of research, learning a second language can actually improve your brain health, stimulating multiple areas of your brain and even fending off cognitive decline in old age.

Below, we run through how learning a language can feed your mind – and what the experts suggest you can do to reap the benefits.

It’s comparable to physical exercise

Think of the brain as a muscle – if you work it out often enough, and in the right ways, you improve its strength and agility.

According to Dr Thomas Bak, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, the analogy goes even further than you might suspect. He believes that, for optimum brain health, language learners should hone their skills for around five hours a week – around the same time period we should devote to physical activity.

But even if it’s just a quick burst every day, that’s a lot better than nothing. As with physical exercise, consistency rather than raw ability is key to reaping the benefits.

“I would say five hours a week is probably a good amount of mental exercise. By analogy, if I can swim perfectly but only do so once a year, it won’t help my health, but if I swim rather awkwardly but do it twice a week, it might be very effective,” he says.

It stimulates many parts of your brain

 When it comes to language learning, you’re not only memorising rules, vocabulary and pronunciation (all of which are likely to improve your memory overall) – you’re engaging in a feat of multitasking. According to a 2011 study by Penn State University, bilingual speakers are better at editing out irrelevant information, prioritising tasks and ‘mental juggling’. This is because they ‘re used to switching between one linguistic structure and the next.

Bilingual people are also better at observing their surroundings and spotting misleading information, and when they’re speaking in a foreign language, they tend to show fewer psychological biases.

Even if you never attain native speaker proficiency, you’re still likely to improve your mental alertness and – astonishingly – increase the size of your brain. Bak feels that learning a language is particularly good mental exercise (more so, than say, playing a game or doing a crossword) because of its breadth of focus. 

As he explains: “My idea is, the more versatile the activity, the better for cognitive function. Language is one of the broadest ways of stimulating the brain: you have different sounds, different words and concepts, different ideas of grammar, and you also have different social interactions. I would say any type of mental activity that involves a lot of layers has a stronger effect than a narrow one.”

You can reap the benefits at any age… but older might be better!

Controlling for other factors, bilingual speakers who succumb to dementia do so around four years later than the rest of the population. For most people, the first signs appear at 71 years old, whereas for those who speak a second language, the average age of onset is 75.

Bak, who conducted the largest study in this field, believes this effect is due to improvements in people’s attention mechanism: “The idea is that not necessarily that bilingualism improves your memory, but that it improves your use of memory. Because of their greater ability to focus their attention, people are able to cope better with loss of brain cells – we call this ‘cognitive reserve’.”

Bilingual people also tend to recover faster than strokes. In another of Bak’s studies, involving 600 stroke victims, 40.5% of the multilingual participants had normal mental functions afterwards, compared to just 19.6% of monolinguals.

Age, then, is no excuse not to learn a language. While young children do have heightened abilities in this regard, there’s no reason you can’t conjugate your verbs once you leave school.

As Bak points out: “People always say if you don’t speak a language younger you’ll never speak it, but from the point of view of health benefits I’d say it’s the opposite – the later the better.”

The best strategy differs for every person

Ignore anything that claims to offer the one true secret to language proficiency – the best strategy for learning languages varies from person to person. And although some people are naturally more cut out for languages than others, it’s all about finding a method that matches your natural learning style.

Brain imaging studies have shown, for instance, that people who are good at picking up sequences and patterns learn particularly well through immersion in a language. Others may fare better learning the rules by rote.

Whatever approach you favour, it doesn’t take much to make a very real difference to brain health. As Bak points out: “The really important message is we have quite a lot in our hands that we can do.”

This article appears on Netdoctor


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