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How Learning a Foreign Language Has Positive Effects on Your Brain

Learning a new language is like learning to drive. It doesn’t matter in which order you learn to steer, use the brake, or change gear. It’s what you do as a whole that is important, not which component you learn first.

The latest breakthroughs in neurosciences, combined with innovative technology for measuring brain activity, are shedding new light on the neural basis of foreign language learning. The functions of the brain during language acquisition are associated with one of the brain hemispheres. The assignment of these functions to a certain half is called lateralisation and is completed before puberty. This explains why this is often indicated as the age limit for acquiring a language with native-like skills.

However, nowadays we know that both hemispheres are involved in language acquisition and production, with different tasks and purposes:

  • The right half ensures the global perception of the context, and comprehension of the connotation of the language, i.e. metaphors, irony, humour, etc.
  • The left half has an analytical perception (cause-effect), which allows the person to understand the logical part of the message.

In other words, both sides of our brain are complementary when learning a language, as the right hemisphere will help us to understand the lexical part of the message as well as its emotional connotation, while the left half will decode its grammar, and phonetic and logical components.

The efficiency of the neuronal networks which are responsible for these functions rely on several factors.

First, for example, the age you start learning a new language matters, and the frequency of exposition and use of the language itself as well. In addition, the level of emotional involvement matters, and the personal learning style of the learner. Thus, the more involved and motivated an adult is, the easier it is to get through the same stages they went through when learning to speak their mother tongue.

Findings on how our brain works when learning a new language have had a major impact on language learning over the years. Over recent decades, the focus of second language learning has shifted from a more traditional approach targeting grammar, learning by repetition and memorisation, to a more dynamic one where the learner can adjust their learning experience and find what is best for their learning style. Therefore, the traditional teacher-centred model has ceded ground to the learner-centred one.

Beside these new studies in neurosciences, the big 21st century sociological trends have also contributed to changing the way we learn a language.

Mastering excellent communication skills has become a must. Nowadays, public speaking and presentation skills are considered important for both studying and working, and communication has quickly become a symbol of positive leadership. Social media also did a lot to spread this way of communicating, part of a new knowledge sharing.

Another big trend is the digital revolution, which is having important consequences on our learning style. E-learning is evolving at a fast pace and learning a new language with digital support is getting easier and easier. Visual, audio, and virtual exercises help learners to immerse themselves in the language and culture they want to study with a methodology that simulates the instinctive language acquisition in children. The advantage is that you do it at your own pace, whenever and wherever it suits you best.

Finally, the multicultural societies in which we live have also influenced our learning style and motivation. Today we no longer study a foreign language to get a better job, as was probably the case a few decades ago. Now, institutions promote multilingualism from primary school to open pupils’ minds, encourage them to discover new cultures and use these to enrich their own personality.

What do you think about learning a foreign language?

20 thoughts on “How Learning a Foreign Language Has Positive Effects on Your Brain

  1. Being born to recent immigrants I learned 2 languages before I was 6 years old. I can pick it up in a matter of a couple days if I have been absent from my first language for a block of time. I have acthird language in which I understand much more than I can speak. The language I was taught in school I have the least command of.

      1. English is my mother tongue. I grew up on the edges of the Ukrainian community, picked up a little bit but it’s very broken. Now I’m learning the correct usage. Yes, very complex. Masculine and feminine as in French, but also 5 cases, like Latin! It’s definitely challenging!

      2. Also Italian and Spanish have masculine and feminine, but not cases, thanks God. I studied Russian for three years, and they have 7 cases! When you speak you would need to think a lot. Good luck with your learning!

  2. First of all, the fact that you write this beautifully and eloquently in a second language (or is it a third) always impresses me, Cristiana. With you as proof of what learning a foreign language can do, I’m convinced! Nice post!

    1. Thank you Wynne ! I have always liked foreign languages and English is my favorite (it’s my second language). Maybe because of all the songs that I wanted to learn when I was a teenager. And all the books I wanted (and still want) to read. Or just because I had wonderful teachers?

  3. I believe in the importance of learning other languages, but I had my best chance in school, and I was too lazy to make good on it. I was a mediocre Spanish student. My daughters were much better and through study at school and travel, each became somewhat fluent in two other languages besides English. One went with French and German, and the other with French in Spanish. Now I use language apps sometimes to stretch my mind and try to pick some things up, but I am by no means close to carrying on a conversation.

  4. Very interesting post. My native language is Malay and English is actually my second language but I’ve used to speak both language like it was my native language since my family often speak English, ever since I was 3 years old. And growing up, I’ve always interested to learn Spanish and French, because I’m very much in love with the sounds of it. So, up till today, I’ve always watched movies or listen to songs in Spanish or French.

  5. I think that learning a foreign language is a great challenge for the brain. It is very enjoyable and I hope to start it up again to go further in understanding other languages. Also, I like that it can be done on applications or websites or other different ways for those of us less accustomed to in person social interaction.

  6. Wonderful post. Language is largely how we shape our world, therefore having more languages opens more doors to new realities. I’m studying Latin at the moment. I teach communication, and language is a huge component of that. There’s a book that came out recently written by neuroscientists on learning languages called “Becoming Fluent.” It’s a neat book to explain what modern science is teaching us about our brains and our language.

    1. Hi! Do you have a link for the book or the name of the author? As a private Italian teacher I am always on the lookout for resources on how to best teach and learn a language.

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