Brain Rewiring: How Speaking Spanish Rewires the Brain
Scientists who set out to map the bilingual brain find themselves on a strange and wonderful journey; a new language shapes the brain in a way unparalleled in any other field. The brain appears to grow in certain regions when we communicate in a new way, while it maintains its shape in mathematical or scientific ventures. What’s happening here?
Here is what specialists around the world have observed in our brain mass as we learn new sounds, words, and expressions.
A Big Hippocampus and Cerebral Cortex
Swedish scientists used MRI technology to scan the brains of military recruits in intensive language studies. Their scans showed that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that learns new words, grew bigger. Areas of the cerebral cortex associated with speaking and listening also increased in size.
The same study scanned the brains of recruits enrolled in other subjects such as science and math and did not see this same brain growth. From this, they were able to prove that the anatomy of a language learner’s bilingual brain is different in shape than that of a scientist or weapons specialist.
Compete and Converge
As a student takes on Spanish, they feel a shift in their minds as they go from hanging out with friends in English to conversing with a teacher in their new language. That’s because of the two different ways of talking that exist in the brain and compete with one another.
As students get immersed in their lessons, they may go to say something in English and accidentally use a Spanish word. This is a natural part of the process of becoming bilingual. Psychologist Judith Kroll assured her audience this momentary memory lapse was no reason to panic.
During a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC in 2016, Kroll said, “A bilingual’s two languages sometimes converge, but often they compete…these changes to the mind and the brain are not simple.”
Kroll explained that the brain has to learn how to switch back and forth, but it will stumble along the way. Years of active use of a new language solves the problem and helps speakers go from English to Spanish and back again in an easy, fluent manner.
What this Means for Learners
That ability to switch from language to language can change how the brain focuses and how it ages.
A bilingual brain knows how to sweep aside the clutter and find the right word in the right language. So, when a learner needs to focus in a different scenario such as a noisy lecture class, they can block out the unnecessary noise and hone in on what’s important. They also get less distracted and feel able to control where their attention falls, rather than get pulled in five different directions.
As the brain ages, it’s often less susceptible to develop brain problems when it has spent years practicing a second or third language. A study conducted on multilingual students in India showed their learning delayed alzheimer’s disease and dementia up to four years later. This happened because their brains could already accomplish what preventative medications are designed to do – help switch from one point of attention to another.
Are Language Learners Smarter?
The short answer is not necessarily, but the longer answer is yes, in a manner of speaking. A bigger, more developed bilingual brain is always an advantage, no matter what your field of work or study.
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