Though we have long suspected that learning a foreign language can help to sharpen the mind, a new study has used EEG recordings to show just how much of an effect language learning has on our brains.
The experiment showed that knowing more than one language helps to boost brain elasticity—a trait associated with the brain’s ability to change and improve over time. Results showed that the brain's electrical activity in participants who already knew a foreign language was higher, and the more languages someone mastered, the faster the neuron network coding information about new words was formed.
For the study, a group of researchres from the Higher School of Economics teamed up with scientists from the University of Helsinki to measure the brain’s electrical activity on individuals with different linguistic skills. The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain activity of 22 students (10 male and 12 female) with an average age of 24. The volunteers had electrodes placed on their heads and then listened to recordings of different words in their native language, as well as in foreign languages, both known and completely unknown by the subjects. According to a recent press release on the project, when the known or unknown words popped up, changes in the brain's activity were tracked. Researchers especially focused on the speed at which the brain readjusted its activity to treat unknown words.
The team said that the volunteers' experience with other languages, such as how many languages they knew and at what age they began to learn them, played a role in the effect that knowing a second language had on brain plasticity. Overall however, knowing a second language was associated with faster neural activity.
Not only is this information reassuring for those of us who speak (or at least try to) more than one language, but it may also play a key role in helping us to understand how the brain processes language following a stroke or accident. And for those of us who are monolingual, research shows it's never too late to learn a second language, and, as seen in this study, the benefits may be worth the trouble.
Source: Kimppa L, Kujala T, Shtyrov Y. Individual language experience modulates rapid formation of cortical memory circuits for novel words. Scientific Reports . 2016
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