If you travel to Europe you’ll likely encounter people who speak several languages in addition to their native one. This is because children in European schools are required to learn other languages along with their own. Learning a second language is a great idea for more than one reason. First, it allows you to communicate with people from another culture. Second, it broadens your understanding of the world and your horizons. Third, recent research shows that knowing another language keeps your brain young as you get older. Here’s why.
Your Brain Thrives on A Second Language
What’s stopping you from learning a second language? Most people over 50 might answer:
- I’m too old to learn a new language
- It takes too much time
- I wouldn’t be able to remember anything
If that sounds like you, think again and go for it! Research studies have shown very positive benefits to learning a new language and that you’re never too old to start. In fact, your brain will love you for the effort and reward you with better brain health as you get older.
One of the studies, published recently on Science Daily, comes out of the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy [Language Learning Makes the Brain Grow, Swedish Study Suggests, October 2012]. It revealed that the human brain grows quickly while learning a new language. Recruits in the Swedish Army undergo a fast paced language learning program and go from not knowing a second language to being able to speak it fluently in 13 months! MRI scans done before and after the language-learning process showed a marked increase in the size of the part of the brain – the hippocampus – involved with learning and spatial skills.
Another study out of Northwestern University in Chicago [Learning a Second Language Can Boost Brain Power, BBC Health News] has shown that learning a second language is like doing “mental aerobics”. It puts your brain through a mental work-out that fine tunes your mind. In addition, it changes how your brain and nervous system responds to sound. People who knew, or were learning, a second language were much better at picking out voice/language against noisy backdrops. The brains of people who are bilingual are much more efficient, flexible, and focused in automatic sound processing, the study concluded.
Another benefit of learning a second language is warding off dementia. In research out of York University in England [Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2012], researchers found a surprise benefit of knowing/learning a second language. Neuroimaging tests were used to monitor the effects of being bilingual on cognition – learning ability – in adults. The researchers found that the person’s need to always be monitoring two languages to select the appropriate one stimulated parts of the brain responsible for general attention and cognition. The constant stimulation strengthened these areas making them more flexible in moving back and forth between two languages. Being bilingual also strengthened cognitive reserve which helps delay or prevent the onset of dementia-like symptoms.
The Best Way To Learn a New Language
Young children learn languages and everything else much faster than adults. However, adult brains retain the capacity to learn all kinds of information, including a new language, albeit a little slower than young children. In fact, one language teacher [Never Too Old To Learn A Language, The Bright Old Oak], states that confidence, not age, is the biggest factor in learning a new language and that most of his students were in the 40-60 age range and older! So stop making excuses and give it a try!
Here are some fun and interesting ways to learn a new language like:
- Traditional in-class training at a university or other center.
- Self-study through online courses.
- Fast “immersion” language training. The latter is used by the FBI and CIA when field operators need to learn a new language quickly. You’ve likely seen these advertised on television or the internet. Their popularity comes from the fact that they really do work.
- Correlate your interests with a new language. For example, if you like soccer, you might try watching foreign broadcasts, while you’re learning. If you enjoy Italian food, try taking a study-abroad course that allows you to cook/learn the language at the same time.
- Have fun! Join a group of beginning language speakers where everyone tries to speak to each other in that language. Take a class with a friend, your spouse, significant other. Learning is much easier when you’re having fun.
- Language classes, programs, also make great holiday, birthday gifts for that special someone who would probably love the idea!
Whoever said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” must not have been referring to humans. Your brain is fully capable of learning new things throughout your entire lifetime from age 0 to infinity. So, go ahead and learn a new language, have some fun and boost your brain health and power at the same time!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News
Language Learning Makes The Brain Grow, Swedish Study Suggests, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121008082953.htm
Being Bilingual Boosts Brain Power, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17892521
Being Bilingual Wards off Symptoms of Dementia, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120329124603.htm
The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual, http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=39638
photo credit: guardian.co.uk