Learning languages is a workout for brains

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Learning a new language changes your brain network both structurally and functionally, according to Penn State researchers.

« Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain, » said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. « Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger. »

Li and colleagues studied 39 native English speakers’ brains over a six-week period as half of the participants learned Chinese vocabulary. Of the subjects learning the new vocabulary, those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary.

The researchers also found that the participants who were successful learners had a more connected network than the other participants even before learning took place. A better-integrated brain network is more flexible and efficient, making the task of learning a new language easier. Li and colleagues report their results in a recent article published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

The efficiency of brain networks was defined by the researchers in terms of the strength and direction of connections, or edges, between brain regions of interest, or nodes. The stronger the edges going from one node to the next, the faster the nodes can work together, and the more efficient the network.

Participants each underwent two fMRI scans — one before the experiment began and one after — in order for the researchers to track neural changes. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.

 

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