Learning a new language can actually make parts of the brain grow, according to new research from Sweden.
Researchers at Lund University compared new recruits at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy — who go from having no knowledge of a language such as Arabic, Russian or Dari to speaking it fluently in the space of 13 months — with medicine and cognitive science students at the university. The cognitive science students also study hard, but did not study any foreign languages.
Both groups were given MRI scans before and after a three-month period of intensive study.
While the brain structure of the control group remained unchanged, specific parts of the brain of the language students grew, according to the researchers.
The parts that grew were the hippocampus, a deep-lying brain structure that is involved in learning new material and spatial navigation, and three areas in the cerebral cortex.
“We were surprised that different parts of the brain developed to different degrees depending on how well the students performed and how much effort they had to put in to keep up with the course,” said Johan Mårtensson, a doctoral student and researcher in psychology at the university.
Students with greater growth in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning (superior temporal gyrus) had better language skills than the other students, the researcher reports.
In students who had to put more effort into their learning, greater growth was seen in an area of the motor region of the cerebral cortex (middle frontal gyrus).
Previous research has shown that Alzheimer’s disease has a later onset in bilingual or multilingual groups.
“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 Mårtensson.
The findings were published in the scientific journal NeuroImage.
Sources: Lund University / psychcentral