How your brain adjusts to learning a new language


In some of the previous articles on our blogspace, we have discussed that learning a language can negate the risk of suffering from cognitive impairment and can generally protect against brain deterioration.

Yet, there is not much clarity provided on how these changes come to be. Research about the brain’s developments, be it small or significant, when processing a new language, is not very forthcoming.

However, in a very recent study, Sakai and colleagues set out to document the ways in which the brain changes in the first few months of learning a language. They conducted their study by observing the brains of participants who were learning Japanese.

The participants were European, aged 20-30 years old, who had just moved to Japan. They were all following an intensive introductory class (3 hours each day) to learn Japanese. Also, all participants spoke English and their respective native languages.

The researchers recorded the participants’ progress through listening and reading tests. In addition, they performed fMRI scans to record the participant’s brain activity during the tests, which was when they were 2 months in, and then after 4 months of learning Japanese.

Research has taught us that there are 4 main areas of the brain that are active when learning a language. The left frontal lobe is associated with learning grammar and comprehension, and the temporo-parietal areas are associated with auditory processing and vocabulary.

Importantly, however, during language tests, the hippocampus (the memory centre), and the occipital lobes (visual processing centre), were engaged during language tests.

After 2 months of studying Japanese, the participants displayed significantly enhanced brain activity in the said areas, as opposed to before they started the learning process.

The language test scores averaged 45% accuracy in reading and 75% in listening. However, some questions on the tests were multiple choice, and therefore, up to 25% could be attributed to chance.

Interestingly, after 4 months of learning Japanese, the participants improved their scores for the reading test to 55%. Yet, there were no significant changes in the results for the listening test. Nevertheless, the researchers observed faster responses; which they chalked up to be an improvement in comprehension.

There was significant improvement between the tests taken during the 2 month mark and those taken after 4 months of learning Japanese. In the first test, the participants showed decreased activation in the brain areas associated with grammar and comprehension during the listening test, and also in the visual areas during the reading test.

Once the participants became familiar with the language, the researchers expected them to use less brain energy while completing tasks. They also expected to see decreased brain activity as the learning progressed. Notably, however, during the second testing they noticed increased activation in the auditory processing area. This was attributed to the result of an ‘inner voice’ that is associated with an auditory stimulus, which is now more fluent due to practice.

Overall, it was interesting to note that the results fit the researchers’ expectations. Brain activity significantly increased at the beginning of the learning and then decreased when the participants gained some familiarity. These results point towards the quick effect that learning a new language can have on the brain – in only a few months!

These findings are hopeful for anyone interested in learning a new language. From experience, it does not take as long as one thinks, for their brains to get used to it. Not only that, it improves your brain’s health by protecting it from deterioration and cognitive impairment.

All it takes is effort and persistence! Learning a new language sounds quite tempting to me – what do you think?

Original source:
Sakai, K.L. et al., 2021. Modality-Dependent Brain Activation Changes Induced by Acquiring a Second Language Abroad. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 15.

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Edited by Malavika Ramanand 

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