Does Learning a Second Language Rewire Your Brain?

Does learning a second language rewire your brain?

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Learning a second language brings you many benefits: more job opportunities, deeper travel experiences, swathes of new films to watch without subtitles. But are these benefits surface level, or does learning a second language rewire your brain entirely?

Children and ‘the bilingual advantage’

Studies on bilingual children seem to suggest that more languages mean more brain power. According to the New Yorker, many researchers have found that children who speak multiple languages have better management of “higher cognitive processes” like problem-solving, memory, and thought. However, the same article concludes that this ‘bilingual advantage’ is often overstated by a media that emphasises studies which confirm it.

A paper by two developmental psychologists found that bilingual children had increased ‘metalinguistic’ ability, or “an accelerated ability to reflect upon and manipulate the forms of language.” These skills translate into an increased ability to pick up reading a writing skills at a younger age.

Another recent paper argues that children need to have adequately developed first language skills for the second language to have any impact on their cognitive ability. Still, it is not surprising that an exposure and knowledge of more languages would lead to an increased ability to process languages in children’s brains. But many of these benefits are based on the child’s developing brain. Does the bilingual advantage still appear in the brains of adult language learners?

A second language later in life

Many linguistic scholars have argued that different languages can create different thinking processes which lead to different worldviews. This is a less crude way of supporting stereotypes such as Germans being logical and Britons being snobbish. But as translation experts Global Voices say, the language and worldview debate is far from settled.

A more tangible form of brain rewiring has been found in people who learn second languages as adults, or who keep up the two languages they spoke as children. The Alzheimer’s Society gathered data from various large scale studies which found that fluency in two languages delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and keeps dementia at bay. On average, multilinguals get these conditions four and a half years later than monolinguals.

This is a considerable advantage in light of the severity and widespread nature of these illnesses. And since dementia itself is linked to decline of the brain, it seems speaking two languages may well rewire the brain, or at least keep it healthier than it would be with just one.

It seems then that the bilingual advantage is present in the young and the old but in very different ways.

By Ian Aikman

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