I've had it in my head for the past several months to learn French. I already know a little bit of Spanish (what I remember from high school and college courses). For some reason, though, I'm being drawn to learn French. I even bought study guides and audio CDs. What I haven't afforded myself yet, however, is time. But I should focus more on that aspect, because according to a recent study, learning a language makes your brain grow.
At the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy in Uppsala, Sweden, people with a flair for languages go from having no knowledge of a language to speaking it fluently in the space of 13 months. From morning to evening, weekdays and weekends, the recruits study at a pace unlike on any other language course.
As a control group, researchers used medicine and cognitive science students at Umeå University—students who also study hard, but not 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. The parts that developed in size 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 had to put in to keep up with the course,” said Johan Mårtensson, a researcher in psychology at Lund University in Sweden.
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. 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). The areas of the brain in which the changes take place are thus linked to how easy one finds it to learn a language, and development varies according to performance.
“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,” Mårtensson said.
So, who wants to learn French with me, or help me practice it?
(Story materials provided by Lund University.)