Learning a New Language for Brain Health & Fitness

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brain health, learning a new language

This post is contributed by the team at Babbel

The obvious reason to start learning a new language is to pick up some key phrases before travelling abroad, but did you know that learning a second language is also a great exercise for the brain and can boost your brain power? A study by the University of Montreal suggests that speaking another language can protect against dementia.

The study also found out that people who speak more than one language are better at conserving brain energy and that bilingualism can help to slow the effects of cognitive aging in later life! Dr. Ana Inés Ansaldo of the University of Montreal explained “After years of daily practice managing interference between two languages, bilinguals become experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring information that can distract from a task.” This allows them to discard unnecessary data and perform given tasks more efficiently than monolinguals.

Crosswords and puzzles may be the first thing we think of to keep our brains sharp, but according to this research, learning a language may be more helpful.

Experts at language learning app Babbel, share the five stages of ‘brain training’ that the average person undertakes while learning a new language.

After one Week: Learning a basic vocabulary – Results in more brain matter

Apart from the gifted few, we all struggle when first learning a language. Our accent is questionable, and we forget basic vocabulary, but we stick with it! Even at this early stage, efforts aren’t wasted. The first steps of language learning boosts the brain’s creativity, and many people claim to develop a new personality when speaking a new language. According to Cathy Price, neuroimaging researcher at University College London, “When you learn more language, your posterior supramarginal gyrus will get a workout, and be stimulated to grow.”

At the four week mark: Beginning to string words together for conversation – Helps filter out excess information

With only 15 minutes of study per day, most people can manage a very basic conversation in another language, and are starting to see some brain benefits. Those extra grey cells  are helping to filter out excess information during everyday tasks. For example, trying to order in a loud restaurant or talking to someone in a crowded subway are far easier tasks for a bilingual, because their brain simply filters out extra ambient sound.

After three Months: Able to converse at a higher level – Improved executive function

At this stage, if you have followed the 15 minute a day rule, you have some proficiency in your new language, and your brain is thanking you daily because speaking another language improves executive function. Sound impressive? It should. Executive function is the set of cognitive abilities that support goal-oriented behaviour like attentive focus, prioritising, planning, self-monitoring control, judgment, working memory, and analysis.

At the end of the first year: You could be deemed bilingual – Less is more

One study comparing monolingual and bilingual brains found that monolingual brains had to work harder when given certain tasks, whereas bilingual brains expended little effort on the same tasks. It’s similar to the difference between an athlete and an out-of-shape person running a mile: the trained body doesn’t need to work as hard. Once you’ve learned enough of another language (not even necessarily to a fluent level!), you are able to switch between them without even noticing or using any extra effort! As Viorica Marian, language expert at Northwestern University puts it: “That’s the exciting part. Using another language provides the brain built-in exercise. You don’t have to go out of your way to do a puzzle because the brain is already constantly juggling two languages.”

Over a lifetime: Fluency in multiple languages – Adds quality years to your life

There is one last, major perk to speaking multiple languages. Recent studies about the effects of bilingualism on Alzheimer’s disease found that bilingual participants reported the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms an average of 5.1 years later than monolinguals. According to this study then, learning a second language and becoming bilingual could add quality years to your life.

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