The Brain Benefits of Learning a Second Language

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Learning a second language benefits cognitive abilities like intelligence and memory, while lowering risks of brain aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

There are many obvious reasons to learn a second language — to advance your career, make traveling more enjoyable, and expand your cultural horizons.

What is not so obvious are the cognitive benefits that take place when you do.

Understanding language is one of the hardest things your brain does, making it the ultimate brain exercise.

Thus, learning a foreign language is one of the most effective and practical ways to increase intelligence, keep your mind sharp, and buffer your brain against aging.

The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language for Young Brains

It’s hard to believe now, but at one time raising children in a bilingual home was frowned upon.

Experts thought their brains would become confused resulting in developmental delays, poor academic performance, and stunted intellectual growth. (1)

It was even thought that exposure to two languages could contribute to schizophrenia or split personalities!

But we now understand that the exact opposite is true.

Children can easily learn additional languages due to their heightened neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to form new neural connections and new brain cells throughout life.

While some studies suggest that learning two languages simultaneously can lead to delays in language milestones, these delays are temporary. (2)

Children who are multilingual experience brain benefits surprisingly early.

By using a fun game with a disappearing puppet, researchers found that babies as young as 7 months old who are raised in bilingual homes reap cognitive benefits! (3)

Another study employed a memory game and found that bilingual 5-year-olds responded faster and were more accurate than monolinguals. (4)

According to a comprehensive review issued by the National Education Association (NEA), here are some of the notable benefits experienced by children who learned a second language in school.

Children who study a foreign language receive a boost in overall cognitive development, do better on standardized tests, are more creative, and have better self-esteem and sense of achievement in school.

Second language studies help students, regardless of race, gender, or academic level, do better in other areas of study across the board including improvement in reading skills, social studies, and math.

Foreign language study acts as an equalizer in the classroom, with minorities and children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds making the most gains.

The NEA report labeled the resulting benefits to self-image, self-esteem, and satisfaction as “enormous.”

Students able to speak a second language have better listening skills, sharper memories, are more creative, are better at solving complex problems, and exhibit greater cognitive flexibility.

From elementary school to college, students of foreign languages score higher on standardized tests.

Results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) show that students who had studied another language for four or more years did better on both the verbal and math portions of the test.

The evidence is clear — it’s never too early to expose children to a second language.

Unfortunately, the United States lags behind.

It remains the only first-world country that does not require all students to study a foreign language. (5)

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How Adult Brains Benefit From Knowing a Second Language

Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Your brain thrives on learning things that are new and complex.

Learning a new language definitely fits the bill.

Millions of people engage in online brain training to keep mentally sharp, but learning a second language is an infinitely more rewarding use of your time.

Speaking a foreign language can be a boon to your career and will enrich your personal travels.

And compared to people that speak one language, adults who speak multiple languages are more likely to: 

  • Have greater general intelligence (6)
  • Have superior overall cognitive abilities (7)
  • Be better at planning, prioritizing, and decision-making (8)
  • Score higher on standardized math, reading, and vocabulary tests (9)
  • Be more perceptive of their surroundings
  • Avoid falling for marketing hype
  • Understand others’ points of view (10)
  • Have better focus, concentration, and attention (11)
  • Delay immediate gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals (12)
  • Have better memory and memorization skills (13)
  • Exhibit mental flexibility (14)
  • Be better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time (15)
  • Be better at remembering lists, names, and directions (16)
  • Have a better understanding of their native language
  • Be more creative (17)
  • Have good listening skills (18)
  • Make more rational decisions including better financial decisions (19)

How Being Bilingual Protects the Brain Against Aging

Another way being bilingual can help your adult brain is by protecting it against aging.

Knowing a second language can postpone the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s by an impressive 4.5 years. (20)

This is significantly better than the best Alzheimer’s drugs which can delay symptoms, but only for 6-12 months. (21)

Brains scans found a noticeable difference in the brain activity of bilingual seniors.

Their brains worked much more efficiently, more like those of young adults. (22)

Scientists believe that these seniors’ brains have more reserve brainpower which helps them compensate for age-related memory loss.

There’s always been a question as to whether bilinguals’ capacity to stay mentally sharp is really due to overall better education, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Interestingly, there is no correlation between the benefits of speaking two languages and literacy.

Bilinguals who cannot read and write experience the same protective benefits against dementia as literate bilinguals. (23)

If knowing two languages is good for your brain, is knowing more languages even better?

The answer to this question seems to be “yes.”

Research shows that the more languages you know, the less likely you are to experience memory loss and cognitive decline. (24)

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How Learning a New Language Builds a Better Brain

Now that you’ve learned all the amazing cognitive benefits of knowing additional languages, let’s take a look at how language enhances the brain.

Learning a foreign language increases the size of the brain’s language centers and the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming, storing, and retrieving memories. (25)

It also increases the density of grey matter and improves blood flow to the brain. (26)

In one Swedish study, young military recruits were taught new languages.

By measuring their brains before and after the language training, researchers had a unique opportunity to observe what happens to the brain when learning a second language.

Brain scans confirmed that study participants experienced an increase in the size of the hippocampus. (27)

Studying a new language can also increase the number of neural pathways between parts of the brain.

In another study, English speakers’ brains were monitored as they learned the Chinese vocabulary.

MRIs revealed that they developed better connectivity between various regions of their brains. (28)

Besides changes in brain function, there were also detectable changes in brain structure after six weeks.

This structural change was apparent even in the elderly, leading researchers to conclude that brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to constantly change and grow even late in life, is greater than previously assumed.

Here’s an engaging TED-Ed Original video that explains how being bilingual gives you a heightened mental workout throughout your life, leading to a healthier and more engaged brain.

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How to Easily Learn a New Language: Three Words at a Time

If you don’t already know a second language, it’s never too late to learn.

Whether you learn a new language as a child or later in adulthood doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to staying mentally sharp for life. (29)

Using a language you already know boosts your brainpower, and so does the process of learning a new language.

You may feel that learning a language now will be too hard, or hardly worth the effort.

But you don’t have to be fluent to experience brain benefits, personal satisfaction, or cultural enrichment.

Even minimal knowledge of a foreign language can help keep your mind sharper no matter your age. (30)

Let’s take a look at what you could accomplish with minimal effort if you decided to learn just three words per day.

It’s been said that the 100 most commonly used words of any language comprise 50% of the words used in day-to-day conversation.

And those 100 core words are what you need to be minimally functional when it comes to conversing with others that speak that language.

By learning three words per day, you can accomplish that in just three months.

To get started, Google “learn 100 core words.”

In the search results, you’ll find a series of free online lessons that teach 100 core words in dozens of languages including French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Hindi.

After you’ve learned your first 100 words, why not keep the momentum going?

The top 1,000 words comprise 89% of everyday writing in that language. (31)

By continuing to learn three words per day, you can become reasonably proficient in reading a language in less than a year.

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Free Online Language Lessons

Of course, you may find learning 3 words per day not fast enough!

If you are more ambitious, there are many excellent apps and websites that can accelerate your language learning for free.

The popular website Lifewire has compiled lists of the best free language learning websites and the top free language learning apps.

Benefits of Learning a Second Language: Take the Next Step

Your brain thrives on learning things that are new and complex.

Learning a new language definitely fits these criteria.

It’s never too late or too early to learn a new language.

Exposure to more than one language enhances brain development in babies and contributes to academic excellence in students of all ages.

Learning a foreign language can make you a happier, smarter, and more resilient adult.

It can protect your brain against mental decline as you age.

With all of these benefits, it’s not a stretch to say that learning a second language is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall brain fitness and quality of life.

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