Bonjour. Konnichiwa. Namaste. Asalaam alaikum. Privet. Hola.
If you understood any of that, you can say “hello” in a few different ways. Beyond greetings, you might even know how to ask for directions, order food at a restaurant, book a hotel room, or even throw a colorful insult in a foreign tongue. Or, like some 43% of the world’s population, you speak two languages with equal fluency.
Some of us didn’t ask for it, of course. While many countries have multiple official languages, many also require English to be taught in their schools, with other subjects like science and math being taught in English.
The language has become not just a global lingua franca thanks to colonialism, but also a class signifier. I still remember, for example, being taught not to speak in my native tongue in elementary school because, they said, English was the language of the learned. (Not necessarily true, but I digress.)
Still, being bilingual or multilingual — or even, impressively, a polyglot, which less than 1% of people are — can put you at an advantage over more than half the population in many ways.
For starters, there’s the ability to connect with others on a deep level. Some say speaking more than one language even gives you a competitive advantage in the workplace. In fact, a 2019 report reveals that more than one-third of managers send out interviews, job offers, raises, or promotions because a candidate spoke more than one language.
On a physiological level, however, fluency in several languages is a major brain booster. You’ve seen those eye-catching headlines that say bilingualism may protect against Alzheimer’s. With more than 5 million people in the US alone afflicted with this type of dementia, it’s not surprising that multilingualism is of interest to the Alzheimer’s community — or, indeed, to anyone with a brain they want to boost.
It Wasn’t Always Understood This Way
Proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking more than one language was not always considered a good thing.
A few decades ago, researchers during the time of the World Wars formed theories on bilingualism as a hindrance to brain development. But their studies were poorly designed and involved mostly children who had experience with trauma. Some were even former prisoners in actual concentration camps.
Unsurprisingly, the studies produced negative (and ultimately, unreliable) results. The participants tested poorly in their verbal language abilities, which led the researchers to believe that multilingualism — not traumatic life experiences — was to blame.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that these perceptions changed. Scientists began to recognize the brain benefits of being fluent in more than one language.
So, should you learn a new language? Let’s take a look at the key benefits of doing so.
Your Brain on a New Language
1. Healthier Gray and White Matter
One of the biggest benefits of multilingualism has visual proof: the brain.
In 2020, researchers from the University of Reading and Georgetown University examined scans of the developing brain and focused on gray and white matter. They noticed that bilingual children and adolescents exhibited less shrinkage in these crucial brain regions as they aged compared to monolinguals.
These findings, published in Brain Structure and Function, bring neurological promise. The gray matter, so named for its color, contains neural cell bodies, axons, dendrites, and nerve synapses. Together, these structures help you process and understand information, retain memories, and even regulate emotions.
On the other hand, white matter, which is composed of axons, is mainly responsible for processing and sending signals through the spinal cord. You can move, feel, and react to stimuli because of this stuff in your brain.
The denser these tissues are, the healthier your brain is. The problem is that these brain regions lose integrity as we get older. Gray matter is said to reduce in size as early as our 20s, while white matter begins to shrink by middle age .
However, the Brain Structure and Function paper suggests that learning and practicing speaking, reading, and writing in another language improves the density of your brain matter. If you can exercise these regions of the brain, you can preserve their integrity as you age.
2. Enhanced Executive Function and Increased Brain Activity
Executive function refers to cognitive skills that “manage” the brain. These include working memory, organizing and planning, filtering out distractions, self-monitoring, and regulating emotions.
In other words, executive functions aren’t just for managing the brain. They kind of manage your life, too — whether that’s organizing your day-to-day tasks or communicating properly with peers and loved ones.
Several studies, including a seminal one from York University, suggest that bilingualism improves executive function. The theory is that assimilating a new language exercises parts of the brain that are also involved in executive function.
More recent studies have concluded that the scope of executive function is too large to attribute improvements to bilingualism, so the findings are, to this day, inconclusive and a topic of debate.
What’s worth mentioning though is that learning a new language is a brain exercise. We now know that though the brain is not a muscle, it is an organ that requires constant stimulation to remain healthy.
Learning or speaking a new language might not make you smarter per se, but it will help keep your brain active. After all, it takes effort to ensure you use the correct word in the correct language and in the correct context.
Even older adults showed promise in a new joint study by Baycrest and York University. Test groups who were learning a new language had improved working memory and focus compared to the test groups who were monolingual.
Maybe the real advantage here is that people who understand more than language — and practice that skill — are more able to activate their executive functioning skills when needed.
3. Delayed Onset of Dementia
Perhaps the most promising finding in neurology is how language learning can delay the onset of dementia. The keyword here is “delay” because, as psychology researcher Ellen Bialystok points out, there is “no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s or dementia.”
The York University professor adds, “The very best you can hope for is keeping these people functioning so that they live independently so that they don’t lose connection with family and friends.”
Her team of researchers conducted a five-year study on dozens of patients with mild cognitive impairment, some of whom were bilingual. They concluded that bilinguals had “more neuropathology” when they were diagnosed, as compared to monolinguals. This means that instead of getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s right away, they registered as patients with only mild cognitive impairment.
These findings suggest that people who spoke at least two languages have greater cognitive reserve that can delay the onset of the severe symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Older adults who are at risk of dementia, or have already been diagnosed with it, may prolong their independence because of their fluency in at least two languages.
Bonus: Better Decision-Making
If you can’t fluently speak but can think in a second language, you may still be able to improve your decision-making skills. A 2012 study, published in the Psychological Science journal, highlights how people who think in a foreign language are more rational when it comes to making decisions.
This is most likely truer for adults than for children who grew up switching between languages. Adult learners acquire a new language in the left hemisphere of the brain. This side is more analytical as opposed to the creative and emotional right hemisphere.
Therefore, it’s said that you show less emotional bias when you think with your brain’s left side. You can find a more rational approach when confronting problems and making decisions.
Language Learning: It’s Never Too Late to Begin
Learning a new language — whether to read, write, or speak — involves a complex set of tasks for the brain. Any activity that can stimulate and challenge your brain can only lead to wonderful, even life-changing, results.
In this process, it also helps to believe in yourself. A 2021 study, this time by the University of Cambridge, found that students who self-identified as multilingual tended to perform better across a wide array of subjects at school — regardless of their level of mastery.
“While we need to understand more about why that relationship exists,” explains researcher Dr. Dieuwerke Rutgers, “it may be that children who see themselves as multilingual have a sort of ‘growth mindset’ which impacts on wider attainment.”
A growth mindset can help us do a wide range of things we aren’t taught enough, like embracing imperfections, viewing challenges as opportunities, and taking smart risks.
Although many of the existing studies on the connection between brain health and bilingualism involve children, it’s never too late to start exercising the most important organ in the body. Plus, you won’t be alone in doing so.
People around the world are picking up this new habit in droves, as made evident by language learning app Duolingo’s record-breaking usage statistics in the last two years.
Today, there are many adults picking up languages they can apply in their daily lives. For instance, app users in predominantly English-speaking nations have a preference for Spanish and French, while others are learning to speak English.
The app has also become especially useful for immigrants and displaced persons trying to transition to their new lives. “In Sweden, the most popular language on Duolingo is Swedish,” my app likes to tell me while a new lesson loads. “(Mostly by refugees).”
You can even start a course on unusual languages or fictional ones like High Valyrian from Game of Thrones and Klingon from the Star Trek universe.
When it comes to the brain benefits of learning a new language, real or fictional, it doesn’t really matter which one you’re choosing. As long as you actually begin and practice regularly, your brain will still thank you later.