Researchers at the Swedish Armed forces Interpreter Academy had the unique opportunity to study the brains of students learning a new language, from their very first lesson to their last. The researchers found that portions of the students’ brains actually increased in size.
Students at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter academy must learn new languages in a very short time period. Some are capable of learning languages like Arabic and Russian to fluency within the space of 13 months, having no knowledge of these languages prior to their studies. In order to isolate the impact that learning a new language has on the brain (as opposed to a learning large quantities of information or a new skill), medicine and cognitive science students at Umeå University were used as a control group – students who study a different discipline just as hard. Both sets of students were given MRI scans before commencing their studies and again, after a 3 month semester. And while the MRI scans revealed no change in the brain structure of Umeå University students, specific areas of the language students’ brains had, in fact, increased — their hippocampus and portions of their cerebral cortex. The hippocampus plays a significant role in the consolidation of information from short to long term memory – allowing one to properly retain what they learn. It also consolidates spatial memory for navigation. The cerebral cortex plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, cognition, awareness, thought, language and consciousness.
The researchers also found that the size of the hippocampus and certain areas of the cerebral cortex were a direct indication of one’s language abilities. Johan Mårtensson, a researcher in psychology at Lund University said, “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 to put in to keep up with the course”. The MRI scans of students who had to put more effort into learning a new language exhibited more growth in the motor region of the cerebral cortex than those who didn’t.
“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”, says Johan Mårtensson.