This is Your Brain on Languages – And It's All Good

by Rick Riddle

The first hominids spoke with grunts and gestures, but they did communicate. And through those early languages, as they evolved, man was able to exchange ideas and opinions. Knowledge grew and that knowledge was and always has been communicated through language – oral or written. It's important to be what we would call “literate.” At another level, however, learning a language actually alters our brains, and in a good way. Now, we have a body of research that is showing exactly how our brain does benefit from learning a new language.

Benefits of Bilingualism

Research on the brain is now showing the following benefits of bilingualism:

The Route that Learning a Language Takes in Your Brain

While we may recognize a word as soon as it is spoken, there has actually been a path taken through four regions of the brain – all of which deal with language, comprehension, and then speech production. These four areas and what they do are as follows:

  1. Auditory Cortex: Sounds go into the ear and are transformed to neural impulses that first go to the auditory cortex. This cortex tells the brain where the sound has come from and then sends that information to other areas of the brain.
  2. Wernicke's Area: This is located in the left hemisphere of the brain and turns the neural impulses into words and phrases from the memory center – thus there is recognition and meaning.
  3. Broca's Area: This is the next area to receive the information from Wernicke's area and it is where responses are produced.
  4. Motor Cortex: This part of the brain receives the response information from Broca's Area and then is responsible for the sound and mouth and lip movement so that a response is vocalized.

The Brain of a Bilingual Person

The same neural processes occur in the brain no matter which of two languages is heard or spoken by a bilingual person. However, here is the difference that account for the many benefit listed above.

Bilingual brains must identify immediately which language fits the sounds that are coming in. Distinguishing between these two languages forces the brain to work a bit differently, particularly in the areas of attention/focus. Thus bilingual speakers become better at switching back and forth between two tasks and focusing on them both equally or eliminating focus on one for the other. Those parts of the brain that allow this functioning actually grow through the processes, and this has been demonstrated by MRI studies.

Flexibility of Language Centers

The other thing that all of these studies have shown is that those part of the brain that control language are highly flexible. They increase in size, and they are strengthened as they are exercised, just as the muscles of our body are strengthened with exercise. As we force our language centers to work harder, we make them stronger. This not only benefits us as children and adults, but in our older years as well. Continuing to use those centers keeps them healthy. Thus there are often recommendations that, among other things, seniors should seriously consider learning another language.

Even if you took a foreign language in high school or college, and you have not used it since, going back and re-learning that language now can be of great benefit.

About the writer

Rick Riddle is a successful blogger whose articles can help you with self-development, personal finance and content management. If you want to know why discipline is important and how self-sufficiency can help you in reaching your goals – follow Rick on twitter.


Other articles about the cognitive benefits of learning languages


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