Cerebral recovery after head trauma or stroke and the transformation that the process of studying a new language causes in the brain and body are the favorite areas of some neurologists and professors, so they tell us more about the path of studying languages in the meanders of our brain. How can you ameliorate your brain productivity and study skills to learn faster? Let us discuss it.
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What Do We Know Today About the Cerebral Structure of Knowing a Language?
As some surveys have shown before, the language does not activate the whole brain, but uses dedicated structures located in the middle region of the left hemisphere. During reading, the whole brain activates: the visual cortex makes it possible to decrypt a text, the auditory cortex let you make a sound.
But there are only two key areas for language: the meaning of words (spoken or read) is analyzed in a network around the Wernicke’s area. And the production of a sound needs some active neurons in the Broca’s area and in the insula. The motor cortex allows the production and the articulation of a word. In spite of everything, language needs to emerge from a rather large network, like a road network. To be able to circulate, all the roads are necessary, but if the nerve center gets clogged, everything is blocked.
Are There Any Differences Regarding New Languages and Brain Performance?
When a person studies a new language, the brain stays almost the same, regardless of a language. But when the brain learns a second language, it needs more space. It will then look for structures in its right hemisphere. When this second language is well-learned, it no longer needs that extra space.
In addition, in the bilingual brain, a frontal control system can inhibit the unused languages at the time of speaking. The existence of this control system has been revealed by functional imaging. It is not specific to language, but to our actions in general. It is used to inhibit automatisms. In addition, brain organization differs according to that person’s age and the particular way in which he/she studies this second language: by total immersion in the foreign environment or at school, for example.
Are There Differences According to the Language Choice?
Actually, yes, and it is pretty interesting. The structure of language organizes our brain in the way it works. For example, our reading system adapts according to the language. Research on French and German bilinguals, for which both languages are used,has equally shown that the brain paths taken for reading are not the same according to language. French is a more complicated language that requires a global vision of the word to be able to decode it, while German can use a more transparent reading (letter by letter). There would be even more differences comparing Chinese and English, for example.
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How Do You Develop Your Cognitive Abilities While Learning a Foreign Language?
Our native language is a clear model of how the brain adapts to the surroundings. If a person decides to learn another language, the ability to perceive what the other person feels increases. Being bilingual also increases cognitive reserves and learning speed, which leads to the greater intellectual flexibility or cerebral plasticity.
But it does not concern only bilingualism. People who study different subjects and self-develop in various aspects also increase their brain skills and ability to learn. On the other hand, if you start to learn another language when some of the concepts of your native language are not well established yet, this can be a hindrance. Similarly, dyslexia is also a big obstacle in learning foreign languages.
Moreover, just because knowing another languagecan have a good influence on your daily life, we do not mean that you have to start learning another foreign language right now – you need to have a strong desire to succeed.
Prevent Diseases and Make the Quality of Life Better
What matters is that learning foreign languages makes sense not only for traveling or studying abroad.Being bilingual means the ability to speak fluently in each of the two languages. Being bilingual makes the person more resistant to dementia or other illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease.
Actually, Alzheimer's disease affects both monolingual and bilingual people. But its first effects are delayed from six months to two years for bilingual people because the bilingual brain defends itself for a longer time. Also, if the disease has attacked a million neurons, it will be less noticeable in case of a bilingual, because the rest of the brain has more neural connections. For the person with such a disease, it makes a difference.
Studying Languages as a Way to Preserve the Brain Health of Seniors
First of all, there is no age limit for the start of your studying. Secondly, nowadays researchers are very interested in late learning of a foreign language and retraining of a learned language. And there is every reason to believe that both would be beneficial to the brain, just like the practice of a musical instrument or any other activity that makes the brain work. In other words, learning one or more languages stimulates the ability to stay active, independent and feel well even in the senior age. Another research perspective is based on the corporeal and emotional component of words. Does the feeling of words by our body play a role in rehabilitation after an accident or stroke? Researchers are trying to find out.
Three Ways of Bilingualism Existence in People
The definition of bilingualism is not only about the degree of mastery of the languages, but also about the way a person uses them. Age of acquisition of language skills and immersion in the foreign environment are two decisive factors. There are three forms of this phenomenon at the cerebral level:
Natural (Early): it represents what the researchers think is, in common sense, true bilingualism. It means that the person supposedly acquired two languages at the same time before the age of 5. These so-called "kindergarten" languages are learned implicitly, as people learn to walk, and not in a specific learning context such as school.
Coordinated (late): current situation of using two languages in everyday life. For example, an immigrant worker speaks Chinese at home and English at work. This way, some people are more bilingual than they believe.
Passive: it refers to having developed a familiarity with another language in its environment: we do not necessarily speak it but we understand it.
Why Is It Useful?
Speaking several languages stimulates the brain in many ways, for children as for adults, regardless of the language acquired. How does a bilingual brain work? What are its specificities and advantages in relation to the brain of a unilingual person?
Beyond these cognitive specificities, it allows the brain to function more efficiently.Indeed, the obligation to juggle between two languages offers bilingual people better control over the executive functions of their brain. In other words, the abilities of attention, memory, and reasoning developed by the learning of the foreign language are reinforced. It is a big advantage for the learner, who can thus process any information more quickly and adapt more effectively to some unfamiliar situations in their daily life, for example.
Cognitive abilities, mental flexibility, the ability to perform tasks requiring change, conflict monitoring and control are thus easier for a bilingual person. This finding is supported by the study conducted in 2015 by researchers from Georgetown University. These researchers looked at the prefrontal cortex, which plays a major role in managing the executive functions of the brain. Using medical imaging, they have found that the gray matter volume of the prefrontal cortex of a bilingual brain is greater than that of a unilingual brain. It is the scientific proof of the fact that people who know two or more languages have executive brain functions that are more effective than the average. Being bilingual is, therefore, a major asset for the brain, for children as well as for adults and the elderly. The advantage for children lies in the functioning of visuospatial and verbal memory, which is more efficient than for a unilingual child.
The Bilingual Brain: Better Prepared Against Brain Diseases
This bilingual advantage in executive functions could have long-term effects, preventing the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. For example, it prevents Alzheimer's disease, which causes the progressive and irreversible loss of neurons, and has a direct impact on the brain, mental functions and memory. If there is no cure to prevent its onset and development, foreign language learning and regular practice throughout a lifetime would delay the onset of symptoms for up to 5 years – that is what studies by a team of researchers at the Rotman University in Toronto have shown.
By examining the medical records of 200 people with this disease, it appears that bilingualism could create "cognitive reserves," delaying the onset of the disease. Stimulate your brain permanently, use the knowledge you have acquired in studying, listening, reading, speaking in another language, because it can solicit the neurons of your brain in everyday life and better preserve them from aging. If you accompany this practice with a balanced diet, the practice of a sports activity every day and a reasonable schedule, you will have a healthy mind in a healthy body, all in all.
All of Us Are Different
Because of their own experiences, the age when they started learning another language and their surroundings, bilingual people have differences in the neurological structure of their brains.There are two types of bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism, when a person learns two languages from birth, and bilingualism of acquisition, when a person acquires a second language during the life and therefore has a dominant language (mother tongue).
For people who have mastered two languages at an early age, it is found that the gray matter volume of the left lower parietal cortex is increased. It is this part of the brain that would allow these people to balance their knowledge in one language as in the other, and to change from first to second without difficulty.The volume of white matter (bundles of fibers that connect the gray matter and transmit information between nerve cells) is also more present in a bilingual brain.
We can, therefore, deduce that speaking several languages can modify the way neurological structures process information, as evidenced by a study conducted by Veronica Marian, director of the Communication Sciences Disorders Department at Northwestern University and Anthony Shook, Chicago
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For children, as well as for adults and seniors, bilingualism has positive effects on brain development and even delays its aging. It is one more reason, if you need one, to decide to learn a new foreign language without minding your age! We hope that our information on different studies gave you motivation to study another language, a foreign one. If you hesitate about your skills and ability to start learning something new, remember that we all succeed in learning at least one language – our native one.