A Swedish study recently discovered something interesting: Learning a new language makes your brain grow larger.
Researchers used MRI scans to measure the brains of students at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy before and after an intensive 13-month training program. The students started out with no knowledge of their target language–Arabic, Russian, or Dari–and ended up with a high proficiency level.So what happened?
The students’ brains grew. Specifically, the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex grew larger.
The control group? No change in brain size.
The Language Brain
I’m particularly drawn to this study because I also went through an intensive program to learn a language. It took me about 15 months to get to a highly proficient level in Arabic. Six to seven hours of classroom instruction a day, five days a week, plus one to two hours of homework.
We had tests every couple weeks. If you failed two in a row, you were “rolled back” to another class that had started later or you were dropped out of the program altogether. Starting out, there were thirty of us. Out of those, only nine made it all the way through to graduation on time.
I can tell you: I was tired. By that point, I had already been in school for 13 years and had gone to a competitive high school where I had two hours of homework a night. So I was no stranger to hard work, tests, and long days.
But there was something especially exhausting about learning language all day, every day. On Friday nights, my buddy and I would take dates out to the movie theater in town, and both of us would fall asleep. I started snoring so hard during Zorro that my girlfriend at the time had to elbow me awake, mortified.
My point is, language requires very specific activity from very specific parts of your brain. I’m sure in some ways it’s a “whole-brain” activity but some areas are taxed more than others. And we can infer from this study that those areas are the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. And I think the repeated taxing of those few regions of the brain is what makes learning languages so exhausting.
As a blogger (and not a scientist) I always look for the “so what?” info in any study. How does this actually help?
I can identify a few things here that can impact your own studies:
- Language works your brain like exercise. So just as you don’t start out trying to bench press 400 pounds in two weeks, you probably shouldn’t start out expecting to speak a language in ten days, two weeks, a month, etc.
- Physiological changes take place with language learning. I briefly mentioned in my book how neural pathways are formed when you listen to a new language. Well here’s more proof that structural, physiological changes are taking place in your brain. You’re not just becoming “smarter.” Your brain is actually growing. So again, expect progress to be somewhat slow as your brain needs time to adapt.
- Language learning is likely very good for your brain. There have been studies suggesting that being bilingual can help stave off Alzheimer’s, but no one is exactly sure why. If the brain is actually growing when you study languages, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that language learning is very much like a workout for your brain.
- Pushing yourself is a good thing. Everybody who has ever mastered a skill–riding a bike, swimming, playing a musical instrument–has had to push themselves out of their comfort zone to improve. Your brain has to encounter some kind of stressor, such as intensity or volume, before it will adapt.
So keep it up with your language learning and enjoy your bigger brain.