Mother Tongues

a journey through language

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This is Your Brain on Language

We all know it’s important to exercise regularly for optimal physical health. Similarly, our brains need a good workout to stay in tip-top shape. But forget that Lumosity brain-training crap.

Learning a language is a much more effective way to beef up your brainpower.

Buckle in for a whirlwind overview: This is Your Brain on Language.

Cerebral challenges

First of all, what exactly does your brain get up to when you’re imbibing a new language? It all starts in the ear, which transforms sounds waves into neural impulses. These are basically your brain’s way of encoding information electrically, kinda like an brain-radio.


This info is conveyed to the first pitstop for processing sound: the auditory cortex. This region figures out when and where the sound originated from.

Next up is Wernicke’s area, which turns random sounds into meaningful words and phrases. You understand what is being said, nice work brain.

If you then wanna reply, Broca’s area of your brain starts formulating your response.

Finally, you need to physically move your lips and mouth to make sounds. This is where your motor cortex comes in – it controls voluntary movements. Now we’re talking!

It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that your brain does all this lightning-fast. Thank you, brain.


Your brain does all this SUPER QUICK

So when you’re learning a new language, your brain has to learn how to distinguish which language a sound is coming from, so it can process it correctly. This requires a whole lotta memory. You have to use your declarative memory system – which deals with facts – to remember all those new words and grammar. Then there’s the procedural memory system – your lips and mouth have to remember which shapes to physically make. For tip-of-the-tongue fluency, you’ll have to subconsciously recall all this,  meaning it has to be part of your implicit memory.

Phew! No wonder languages are the ultimate workout. So why go through all this effort? Here’s a few rad results of language learning.

It can make your brain bigger

Yep, learning a language is literally the brain equivalent of bodybuilding.


A 2014 study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the effects of language learning on the physical structure of the brain. They compared the brain scans of language students before and after three months of intense study. For comparison, they included a control group of medical science students.

Med sci brains remained unchanged, whereas those grappling with a new lingo exhibited growth in specific areas.

Hold up! A bigger brain doesn’t necessarily mean a smarter brain. So you might not be more intelligent.

But you may be healthier, since brain size may indicate brain health. As you age, your brain shrinks, leading to cognitive decline and diseases like dementia. In fact, research has shown that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia and can protect against Alzheimers disease. Maybe bigger is better?

It can also change the structure of your brain

Your brain is plastic. I don’t mean like a barbie doll – this is a good kind of plastic. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself, forming new neural connections.


Here’s an interesting tidbit: if you have grown up bilingual, then both the languages you speak are processed in the same part of the Broca’s area. But if you learn a language later in life, a new region develops in the Broca’s area, separate but close to your mother tongue.

But no matter your age, simply participating in language learning increases the density of your grey matter – the brain-stuff that incorporates everything from muscle control to decision making to sensory perception. Meanwhile, your white matter is strengthened. White matter is the tissue that connects different parts of your brain – kinda like a subway system for navigating the mind.

Essentially, the networks in your brain become more closely integrated. Consequently, you can learn more quickly and efficiently. Hell yeah!

How you learn a language – whether in a traditional classroom or by immersion – can affect how your brain is rewired, too.

You’ll be better at concentrating…

…and other things. A lot of other things. Seriously.

Researchers have found that bilingual people have enhanced attention – they’re better at shutting out irrelevant stuff and focusing on what’s important. What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether you learnt the language in childhood or as an adult, the benefit is the same. Similarly, being bi- or multilingual can make you a better listener.


Being multilingual can help you block out the haters

Learning a language can help you develop qualities that underpin creativity. You’ll also be better at multitasking – perhaps the result of having to seamlessly switch between two or more languages.

You will think more analytically and be more considered in your decision-making, as well as being less susceptible to persuasive language (the sort you might find in political campaigns).

Some people even reckon that different languages change the way you perceive the world.

So what now?

If this is your brain on drugs…

Video via Retropile on Youtube

…then this is your brain on language.


Ostrich egg via Mike Scott on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fluent you become – just try to learn a language and you’ll reap the cognitive benefits. Yeeww!


How has learning a second language affected you? Let me know in the comments!