Swedish Researchers Suggest Learning Foreign Language Can Make Your Brain Grow

A team of Lund University scientists has discovered that the accelerated learning of foreign languages can lead to the growth of language-related regions of the brain.

Language areas of the brain (James.mcd.nz / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The team tested a group of volunteer recruits at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy in Uppsala set with the task of learning Arabic, Russian, or Dari within only 13 months. From morning to evening, weekdays and weekends, the recruits studied at a pace unlike on any other language course. Lund researchers have had an almost unique opportunity to observe what happens to the brain when we learn a new language in a short period of time.

As a control group, the team used medicine and cognitive science students at Umeå University – students who also study hard, but not languages.

Both groups were given MRI scans before and after a three-month period of intensive studies.

The results, published in the journal NeuroImage, show that while the brain structure in volunteers from the control group remained unchanged, specific parts of the brain in the language students grew. The parts that developed in size were the hippocampus, a deep-lying brain structure that is involved in learning new material and spatial navigation, and three areas in the cerebral cortex.

“We were surprised that different parts of the brain developed to different degrees depending on how well the students performed and how much effort they have had to put in to keep up with the course”, said Dr Johan Mårtensson of Lund University, Sweden, who led the study.

Students with greater growth in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning (superior temporal gyrus) had better language skills than the other students. In students who had to put more effort into their learning, greater growth was seen in an area of the motor region of the cerebral cortex (middle frontal gyrus). The areas of the brain in which the changes take place are thus linked to how easy one finds it to learn a language and development varies according to performance.

“Even if we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape”, Dr Mårtensson concluded.

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Bibliographic information: Johan Mårtensson et al. 2012. Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage, vol. 63, issue 1; pages 240–244; doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.043