Immersion Learning & Brain Growth: What Your Brain Looks Like When Speaking a Foreign Language

What happens in our brains when we speak a foreign language?

Do we think in that language?

Do our brains “Google translate” from our native tongue?

Through MRIs and electrophysiology, researchers took a look at the brain to see what visual effects manifest with foreign language learning.

They also analyzed what these effects can tell us about learning a language.

Brain Growth

In an article by Alison Mackey, an MRI study took a look at two groups: young military recruits with a propensity for language and a control group of medical and cognitive science students.

The language groups studied Dari, Arabic, and Russian, while the control group studied other intensive topics but not language.

Taking MRI scans of both the language students and the control group found that certain areas of the brain grew in size for the language group, while those of the control group did not.

Those in the language group who experienced more brain development in the hippocampus of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in learning and memory) demonstrated superior language skills to those who experienced more brain development in the motor region of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in speaking words).

The ease with which a language student learned, understood, and spoke the language saw a direct correlation with the areas of the brain that grew.

And brain development directly correlated to performance.

Immersion is Key

Another study, noted in an article by Guy Brockless on Bilingua, explored the inner workings of the brain via electrophysiology.

Completed by Professor Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois, the study used an artificial language to identify the differences in the brain’s function when experiencing immersion learning versus rule learning.

Both groups learned the language, but the immersion group learned it via processes similar to native speakers, which is ideal if your goal is native-like fluency.

Morgan-Short said about the study:

“This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Both studies inform our understanding of how our brains work when learning a second language.

They also indicate that while not all brains work or develop the same during the process, that data can allow language learners to tailor and customize the best methods of language learning for their own personal growth.

Creativity and Cognitivity: How Learning A Second Language Boosts Your Brain

We all know that learning a second language opens up new avenues in your brain.

Learn French, and you’ll soon be turning the roundabout of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Attribution: Josh Hallett

Learn Spanish, and you’ll find yourself rambling down La Rambla.

Attribution: Jinx Vilhas

But how, exactly, does bilingualism influence your brain?

Last week, we saw the effects of second language learning on cognition.

This week, we’ll take a look at two additional studies that confirm that foreign language learning can make you a better learner and thinker.

Figural Creativity

A 1973 study by Richard G. Landry took a look at how learning a second language at the elementary school level can enhance figural creativity.

Landry hypothesized that when completing figural tasks – such as flexibility, originality, and creativity which rely on association, imagery, and other more abstract factors – second language learners have an edge over monolingual learners due to their flexibility in thinking. 

And his results confirmed this theory.

The study showed that the second language group scored significantly higher than the monolingual group on figural tasks, indicating that second language learning lends itself to divergent thinking to better complete these types of tasks.

Learning a second language at the elementary level also provided students with a broader range of linguistic and culturally rich resources which produces varied and fresh ideas.

The conclusion was that second language learning enables children to approach a problem differently, departing from traditional approaches more readily taken by monolingual students.

Cognitive & Language Development

Second language learning doesn’t just boost the creative mind.

A second study, completed in 1991 by Kathryn W. Bamford and Donald T. Mizokawa, examined the differences and degrees of nonverbal problem-solving and native language development between a monolingual classroom of second graders and an additive-bilingual Spanish-immersion classroom.

The study tested native language development between the two classrooms, measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-R, and found no significant differences, despite the bilingual group’s Spanish immersion.

However, there were significant differences in problem-solving between the two groups.

Using Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices, which is a nonverbal test that measures “fluid intelligence”  – or general human intelligence and abstract reasoning – the study found that the Spanish-immersion group had a significant edge over their monolingual peers.

The conclusion drawn:

“The superior control of cognitive processing demonstrated by children in the early stages of additive bilingualism may enhance symbolic reasoning abilities.”

This pair of studies indicate that second language learning can boost both your creative and cognitive thinking at the elementary level.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how these effects evolve in higher academia.

The Science Behind Learning a Second Language

Learning language, learning religion, and learning history are important to taking action in your own cultural integration. Of the three, learning language often requires the most drive and focus.

But when you’re a child, you seem to soak up language like a sponge. You don’t need that drive and focus to learn it.

The adult memory – or the lack thereof – is often blamed for this disparity. And the truth is the ability to retain information slows with age. Moreover, different languages have different sounds, which are easier to master at a young age, as the mouth is still forming and speech still developing.

However, though it’s a smart idea to become bilingual as a child, some of us don’t have that opportunity. That doesn’t mean that, as adults, we should pass off language learning as “too difficult.” Instead, we must take a leaf out of the child’s playbook and learn a language like children do.

Learning as a Child

An article published by Patricia K. Kuhl in the journal, Mind Brain Education, entitled “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education,” states that language learning in children is a highly social activity.

“There is evidence that children’s early mastery of language requires learning in a social context,” Kuhl writes. “Research shows that young children rely on what has been called ‘statistical learning,’ a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture. However, new data also indicate that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computations skills to learn from exposure to language.”

Believe it or not, this is the same thing adults need in order to learn a language quickly: a social setting and social interaction. Even more so, we need the confidence that a child does and the willingness to make mistakes.

This is the science behind learning a second language.

Do these rules really apply to adults, as well?

Learning as an Adult

Meet Benny, the Irish polygot.

He’s the author of Fluent in 3 Months and says that although he’s not inherited the so-called “language gene” and isn’t particularly gifted with languages, he’s been able to become fluent in seven languages, simply by having the confidence to speak.

Why?

Benny met a man in Spain who changed his life. In his own words: “He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

This is actually the secret to learning anything. Think about it: whether it was riding your bike, mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, weren’t you willing enough to just give it a go, even if you weren’t that confident in your abilities to begin with?

The self-described “fun-loving Irish guy and full-time globe trotter” has taught thousands of language learners his approach to becoming competent in a language quickly.

“My mission in life is giving people permission to make mistakes,” he says on his site. “The more mistakes you make, the faster you become a confident language learner.”

Science and practical application turn up the same results. The equation to language learning, whether young or old, is as simple as confidence + speaking + making mistakes = learning through exposure.

This month, my posts will offer resources, language learning sites, and advice on how to plug into this equation and get rolling on a new language.