“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own,” said Goethe. A bold statement, but there may be some truth to it: A new Swedish study has found that when learning a new language, certain areas of the brain literally grow. The study, entitled Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning was performed by researchers from Lund University.
It should be noted right away that the participants in the study did not learn another language in a traditional setting. The study looked at new recruits in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, where language students study seven days a week, morning until night, over the span of 13 months. Grueling though it sounds, in this time frame students are able to learn complex languages with new alphabet systems, such as Arabic or Russian, despite having no previous knowledge on them.
For a control group for the study, researchers used medicine and cognitive science students from another Swedish University, students who excelled in their fields of learning, but did not study languages. Both groups underwent an initial MRI scan and then dove into a 3-month period of intensive cramming in their respective fields. The brain structures in the control group did not change, while the language students’ MRI scans revealed increases in the size of the hippocampus and in three areas of the cerebral cortex. Interestingly, previous studies have shown that language learning will slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s.
“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,” said Johan Martensson, an author of the study.