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Foreign Language and the Bigger Brain

January 30, 2012

Amelie reading in her bed

Okay, maybe not bigger, but definitely sharper.  We’re talking sharp enough to stab, slice and filet any intellectual opponent who dares challenge your supremacy.  Well.  At the very least we’re talking a brain that’s bigger, better, faster and stronger.  Healthy enough to possibly outrun the onset of Alzheimer’s. 

Several publications have shed light on these excellent motivator studies, which highlight the benefits of slogging through all those hours of learning a second language.  It should be noted that just about all the research seems to focus on children and bilingualism, but I have never seen a study yet saying there are adverse affects of learning something new as an adult.

BBC Being Bilingual ‘Protects Brain’:

Researchers from Canada’s York University compared two groups of people with similar socio-economic standing.  One group was comprised of English-only Canadians and the other group was from India and spoke both English and Tamil.  Researchers “found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally.”

Three more reviews of this study can be found at:

The New York Times – The Bilingual Advantage 

The Washington Post – Bilingualism’s Brain Benefits

NPR – Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power

Study for Neuroscience The Bilingual Brain:

Studies are showing that tackling a second language from early childhood can give students a major boost in school and carry on throughout their life.  “Research suggests that bilingualism may delay the onset of age-related dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, by up to four years. Although scientists don’t know why bilingualism creates this “cognitive reserve,” some theorize that speaking two languages may increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain and keep nerve connections healthy—factors thought to help ward off dementia.”

EurekAlert Brains at Work: Learning a Second Language May Not Be as Laborious as Believed

For adult learners, researchers at the University of Washington have observed first-year French college students on their recognition of real versus fake French words and researchers found from brain activity that the learner’s brains were better at recognizing the real words than the participants themselves.  “It seemed incredible that the brain could do this with such facility while the subjects could not do it consciously. When students were asked how they thought they performed on the task, many of them laughed and said that they were just guessing. […] What this study shows is that students are more successful at this stage of learning a language than they think they are.”

The Telegraph Can’t Learn a Foreign Language? Not True, Say Scientists

In this study on how stroke patients can regain their speech, scientists helped open a door of inspiration for language learners everywhere.  Researchers found that it only takes 15 minutes to learn a new word.  “All one needs to do is listen to a word 160 times over that period, found Cambridge neuroscientists.  After that the brain will have formed a whole new network of neurons specifically tasked with remembering that word.”

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