Need a reason to take French or German classes? A new Swedish study suggests that learning to speak a language fluently in the course of a year can make your brain grow.
Announced on Monday, Lund University scientists tested fourteen 18-year-old volunteer recruits at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy in Uppsala set with the task of learning Arabic, Russian, or Dari within 13 months. From morning to evening, seven days a week, the recruits studied intensely for eight hours a day, learning from 300 to 500 new vocabulary words a week.
As a control group, the researchers used a batch of hardworking medicine and cognitive science students at Umeå University, with both groups given MRI scans before and after a three-month period of intensive study.
The findings were interesting: while the brain structure of the control group remained unchanged, specific parts of the brain of the language group grew. “The parts that developed in size were the hippocampus, a deep-lying brain structure that is involved in learning new material and spatial navigation, and three areas in the cerebral cortex,” write the researchers.
“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 had to put in to keep up with the course,” says Johan Mårtensson, a researcher in psychology at Lund University.
For example, students gifted in language skills had greater growth in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning, and the students who studied harder showed a greater growth in an area of the cerebral cortex called the middle frontal gyrus.
Findings were published online in the journal NeuroImage.
Previous research has indicated that Alzheimer’s disease has a later onset in bilingual or multilingual people.