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Why learning a language is the best exercise you can give your brain: six big benefits

Millions of hard-working people all over the world put extreme amounts of mental effort into learning languages and becoming bilingual.

The practical reasons are obvious. Being bilingual opens doors and creates opportunities that wouldn’t exist for a monolingual.

But sometimes, it is hard to motivate yourself to study when those tangible, financial and social benefits don’t immediately materialise.

Rest assured though!

Even a little foreign language study can have amazing benefits for your brain.

Science over that last decade, with the aid of new research techniques like fMRI brain scans, has started to amass a large body of data building a picture that there are many remarkable benefits to being bilingual.

Why having two languages fight in your brain is good for you

Unfortunately, being bilingual wasn’t always seen as a good thing. Many policy makers, educators and uninformed commentators have tried to convince us that learning a foreign language, especially from a young age, has a detrimental effect on brain development. Wrong! They have claimed that the interference caused by having competing languages fight for dominance in one brain can hinder academic performance and intellectual development.

Science now says this interference is in fact strengthening bilinguals’ brains making them brighter, smarter and faster thinkers. It is probably also making them sexier. Why?

Well, first you should realise that your brain is a very efficient organ. It likes to find the quickest and easiest way to do things. Practice something enough and your brain will start to take the driver’s seat.

You start to be able to do that thing without thinking. The networks in the brain that allow you to do that thing get stronger and stronger. All good right? However, this efficiency has a downside. Without a challenge your brain becomes lazy. Information likes to travel the path of least resistance. The brain opts for the easy route so it uses the simplest language possible to get the job done.

A good example of the brain’s love of efficiency is language change. If a language is too complicated then the brain, over time, will simplify it.

An international team of linguists lead by the university of Zurich showed that certain taxing language constructions will eventually be omitted from languages. Think of how simple Italian is compared to Latin, or the use of ‘whom’ in English. Grammarians may gnash their teeth. Despite this they cannot compete with linguistic evolution’s propensity for survival of the simplest.

Just speaking our own language doesn’t give the brain the workout it needs.

This is where interference comes to the rescue! Interference is caused when words compete in the brain. Two or more words fight for dominance and, like in any war, no one really wins. Have you ever had a word on the tip-of-your-tongue? You kept trying to say one word but couldn’t stop think of another? This is interference. When you relax and the brain calms down it can find the word it wants. All that extra mental activity caused by words fighting is good for you.

Interference, therefore, is the mental equivalent of adding some extra weight at the gym. When two languages compete it ultimately strengthens your processing systems. The two languages fighting in your brain make it tougher, stronger and expand its limits.

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The benefits

To understand these bilingual brain benefits, we must explain what executive function is. Executive functions are the skills that help us organise and act on information. Having good executive function helps us process, plan and complete tasks effectively. Good impulse and emotional control, flexible thinking, strong working memory, the ability to self monitor are all hallmarks of someone with good executive function. Bilingual people have been shown to have better developed executive function. Let’s look some of those benefits.

Become an expert at managing information

One consistent finding with experts across many fields is that if you are adept in something you tend to respond slower to questions on that topic. This is because experts have to take much more information into account when answering a question. People who know little on a topic tend to reply faster precisely because they don’t know much about what they are talking about. Unfortunately, in our world, it is the quick, uninformed people that get listened to rather than the slow, thoughtful ones.

Bilinguals follow the slow-thinking pattern when they process information, especially conflicting information.

Bilinguals are experts at managing conflicting information.
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Psychologists at the University of Cleveland found that bilingual people are slower to respond to stimuli, but outperform monolinguals on certain tasks. Monolinguals act faster but are wrong. This finding may explain why in the past people thought that being bilingual was an impediment to thinking. Bilinguals looked like they were slower, but in fact, they were just being more careful and not rushing into bad responses. They manage the information methodically which allows them to get better results.

Improve your multitasking skills

We live in a crazy, busy, multitasking world. Yet, we know that in reality multitasking is ineffective. This is because every time you switch between tasks your brain has to reconfigure to the new task. The mental energy used to flip between jobs is called a switch cost. Bilinguals, however, are accustomed to switching between languages. Researchers at the University of Toronto suggest that being bilingual trains the brain to be able to switch between tasks which translates directly to improved flexibility in multitasking.

Make your brain grow bigger

Want to become fluent in a language super fast? Then you might want to consider becoming a Swedish army interpreter. Famously the Swedish army takes young recruits with a passion for language learning and trains them, from nothing, to speak Arabic, Russian or even Dari in little over a year. Researchers at Lund University found that in the space of just three months of intensive language study the recruits on the courses brains grew measurably.

Intensive study makes your brain grow!
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Growth was seen in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex of these recruits. What’s more, the amount of growth was directly related to how well the recruit was doing—study harder and your brain grows more. Unfortunately, we can’t all join the Swedish Army, but we can all keep going with Lingualift.

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Keep focus against all distractions

One very important executive function that children need to learn is the ability to focus. As adults we too face a myriad of distractions. When the brain gets used to hearing two or more languages it gets really good at filtering out the one it isn’t using at the moment. This skill is transferable.

Bilinguals are better at zeroing in on one thing while blocking out the stuff that doesn’t matter. Now stop checking Facebook notifications and get studying!

Stay mentally young and healthy

Medical science is getting to the point where people can expect to have healthy, active bodies well into old age. What science can’t cure at the moment are the many mental afflictions that threaten us as we get older. However, we can stall and mitigate the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s by becoming bilingual. The evidence for this has been growing for years now.

The good news is that just like physical exercise, mental exercise has immediate positive effects. Yay!

Researchers at Penn State found that it took just six weeks of studying Chinese for people’s brains to start getting stronger.

See the world in a different way

There is an old Slovakian expression Every language learned is another life lived. It is true on an experiential level for sure. Think of the worlds of art, culture, people and ideas that open up for you once you learn another language. The good news is, that it also applies at the mental level.

Although the ghost of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis casts a large shadow over ideas like this, science is proving that speaking another language can change the way you look at the world.

Studies at the university of Newcastle have shown the Japanese-English bilinguals are more likely to identify colours as different because there are words like mizuiro (literally water blue, or light blue) in Japanese that English speakers don’t have. This is just one example of how learning a language gives you new words and ideas with which to describe the world.

Project confidence and determination

One final thing you can count on is that if you meet someone who is bi-, tri- or even multilingual you can make a pretty safe bet that they are also someone you’d want to be friends with or even hire to work with you. Not only have they demonstrated that they have the self and mental discipline to speak two or more languages, but that they also probably possess the type of executive functions that will make them an asset to any workplace.

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