Learning languages sharpens our minds: Study

by L&D06 Sep 2016

If you’ve ever thought about learning French, Japanese or Spanish, new research suggests there’s good reason to.

The more foreign languages a person learns, the more effectively the brain reacts and processes information during learning, claims scientists from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) and the University of Helsinki.

The study involved experiments where the brain's electrical activity was measured with EEG (electroencephalography), and included 22 participants (10 male and 12 female), with the average age being 24.

The subjects had electrodes placed on their heads and then listened to recordings of different words in their native language and foreign languages, both known and unknown by the subjects.

When the known or unknown words popped up, changes in the brain's activity were tracked.

The scientists particularly focused on the speed at which the brain readjusted its activity to treat unknown words.

Afterwards, the neurophysiological data was compared to the subjects' “linguistic background”. That is, how many languages they knew, at which age they started to learn it, etc.

What they apparently found was that the ability of the brain to quickly process information depends on one's "linguistic anamneses".

The experiment has shown that the brain's electrical activity of those participants who had already known some foreign languages, was higher.

The author of the study, Yuriy Shtyrov said that the more languages someone mastered, the faster the neuron network coding the information on the new words was formed. Consequently, this new data stimulates the brain's physiology.

This meant that loading the mind with more knowledge boosts its elasticity.

The scientists believe that when we achieve better insight into the principles of creating and strengthening neuron networks, we will be able to harness these mechanisms, speed them up and improve the learning process.

They also argue that understanding how the brain functions in acquiring language is of crucial importance in diagnosing speech impediments after accidents, strokes, and other related conditions, and finding ways to treat them.