Can learning a new language boost your brain?
The BBC series – ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ explored how learning a language can be beneficial for our brains and even delay dementia (Series 8 Programme 1).
But is it worth it? Is it ever too late to learn?
Dr Thomas Bak and Professor Antonella Sorace, both from the University of Edinburgh,
recruited 20 volunteers who had never tried to learn Spanish before. Over four weeks, volunteers attended classes three times a week for two hours at a time. Before and after the course they undertook cognitive tests measuring attention, memory and mental flexibility. They were divided into two groups: half were 18-30 years old, the other half were over 56 years old.
After the four-week course, there was an overall improvement for everyone in the cognitive tests. However, when we looked at the two age groups, the older participants had improved more than the younger ones.
This is consistent with previous research, which showed that language learning leads to improvements regardless of age, and that older people can improve even more over the same period of time.
The other interesting thing that emerged from the experiment was that these improvements were not dependent on how good the volunteers were at speaking Spanish at the end of the course. In the four weeks, none of our volunteers became fluent but they did practise regularly, and this was enough to give them the cognitive benefits. Practice was more important than proficiency, and consistent practice allows the cognitive benefits to be maintained. Furthermore, as well as offering cognitive improvements there are other benefits that learning a new language can offer, both to social life and confidence.
Why learning a new language is good for the brain?
Sudoku is like going to the gym and using one machine to repeat one movement. Learning a language, on the other hand, is like using 20 different machines which require lots of different movements. That is because language learning engages a number of different parts of the brain and boosts the connectivity between these different areas. In turn, this improved connectivity improves your higher mental function.
Every 3 minutes in the UK, someone is diagnosed with dementia or has a stroke. Studies have suggested that learning a second language could delay the risk of dementia by up to 5 years, and that it can also improve the rate at which you recover from stroke.