Study reveals learning languages changes brain anatomy

People who speak two languages have more grey matter

Being bilingual produces changes in the brain’s anatomy, scientists said in a finding that could explain why children are so much better than adults at mastering a second language. They found that people who speak two languages have more grey matter in the language region of the brain. The earlier they learned the language, the larger the grey area.

“The grey matter in this region increases in bilinguals relative to monolinguals – this is particularly true in early bilinguals who learned a second language early in life,” said Andrea Mechelli, a neuroscientist at University College London. “The degree [of change] is correlated with the proficiency achieved.”

Learning another language after turning 35-years-old also alters the brain but the change is not as pronounced as in early learners.

“It reinforces the idea that it is better to learn early rather than late because the brain is more capable of adjusting or accommodating new languages by changing structurally,” Dr Mechelli said. “This ability of the brain decreases with time.”

Dr Mechelli and his team used structural brain imaging to compare the size of the grey matter in the brains of 25 monolinguals, 25 early bilinguals who learned a second language before the age of five and 33 late bilinguals. All the volunteers in the study, which is described in the science journal Nature, were native English speakers of comparable age and education. In the bilinguals, the grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex was larger than in the monolinguals or the bilinguals who picked up the second language between the ages of 10-15.

“By looking at the size of the change [in the brain] I can tell whether someone is very proficient or not, because the bigger the change the better the proficiency,” he said. Grey matter in the brain is made up of neurons or brain cells. The scientists do not know whether the change in bilinguals means there is an increase in the size of the cells, the number of cells or the connections between them.

“The next step would be to understand the change better at a small-scale level,” according to Dr Mechelli. Dr Mechelli and his colleagues are planning further studies with people who have difficulty learning languages to see whether their brain behaves differently. They also plan to study speakers of several languages to determine whether the increase in grey matter is proportional to the number of languages they have mastered.

Reuters, Thursday, October 14, 2004.1

 

Children who have studied a foreign language perform better in English, Mathematics and Social Studies

“The picture that emerges is… a youngster whose experience with two language systems seems to have left him or her with a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, and a more diversified set of mental abilities.” The studies also demonstrated that children who have studied a foreign language perform better on standardized tests and tests of basic skills in English, math and social studies. Data from the College Board’s 1992 edition of College Bound Senior revealed that students who had had four or more years or foreign language scored higher on the verbal section of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) than those who had had four or more years in any other subject area. This information corroborated Cooper’s conclusion in 1987.”2

 

“Recent brain research indicates that learning a second language is a powerful experience that helps the brain of young children develop. The young brain will actually grow the connections needed to learn the language. That is no longer possible after age 12. Seven states have instituted a second-language requirement for all children in elementary school.”3

 

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Footnotes
1. Reuters. “Study reveals learning languages changes brain anatomy,” on the ABC News website [Online] Cited 09/11/2014
2. Robinson, D.W (1992). “The Cognitive, Academic and Attitudinal Benefits of Early Language Learning,” in Met, M., (ed.). Critical Issues in Early Language Learning. White Plains, NY: Longman.
3. Dumas, L.S. (1999). “Learning a Second Language: Exposing Your Child to a New World of Words Boosts Her Brainpower, Vocabulary, and Self-Esteem,” in Child, February 72, 74, pp. 76-77.