02.17 Language Learning May Boost Your Brain
Language Learning May Boost Your Brain    


  • Learning a language improves cognitive function; it can delay the onset of brain diseases and cognitive decline later in life and improve recovery from stroke.
  • Younger people have shown similar benefits of language learning. After a one-week language course, language learners performed significantly better than controls. Learning a language for 4 years showed results similar to bilingual students.
  • Just five hours of language practice per week maintained improvements in auditory attention and cognition over time.

    Dr. Thomas Bak was born in Poland to a Polish father and a German mother. He grew up speaking only Polish, though, because his parents feared that exposure to two languages might cause confusion and hinder his development. Today he lives in Scotland and speaks English, Polish, German and Spanish on a regular basis. His daughter has been raised trilingual from birth, speaking the English of her homeland, the Polish of her father, and the Spanish of her mother. Oh, how times have changed.

    It is not just times that have changed. Our thinking about language and brain development has changed too. Scientists now recognize that our brains are not fixed entities but can adapt over time, a property known as brain plasticity. Language a critical component of brain development, and fluency in a second or third language is a great achievement. Moreover, new research by Dr. Thomas Bak, at University of Edinburgh, has demonstrated the beneficial effects of language learning, including improved cognitive function and delayed onset of brain diseases later in life.

    A neurologist and psychiatrist by training, Dr. Bak works at the intersection of the fields of neuroscience and linguistics. In particular, he studies language disorders in patients with neurodegeneration, trauma and stroke. If a brain injury impacts the specific areas of the brain involved in language processing, a variety of language problems can arise. For example, a person may be unable to produce sounds correctly, to understand what is being said, or to accurately share his or her thoughts and feelings.

    Studies consistently showed that the knowledge of more than one language can delay the onset of cognitive decline in the elderly, sometimes by as much as four or five years.

    Dr. Bak became interested in the benefits of learning more than one language (bilingualism) after reading reports that bilingual patients develop dementia 4 years later than their monolingual counterparts. Studies conducted by Dr. Bak and his colleague Dr. Suvarna Alladi in Hyderabad, India consistently showed that the knowledge of more than one language can delay the onset of cognitive decline in the elderly, sometimes by as much as four or five years. "No drug we have can change the brain like this," notes Dr. Bak. In addition, studies conducted with Dr. Alladi's team in Hyderabad showed that bilingual patients have a better cognitive recovery from stroke, another common brain disease affecting cognitive function.

    It helps when you're old; will it help when you're young?

    Dr. Bak wondered if similar benefits of language learning could be achieved in younger people, too. To test his hypothesis, Dr. Bak recruited students from the University of Edinburgh, where he teaches. Each student completed a language questionnaire that enabled the researchers to identify students as either monolingual (speaking only one language) or bilingual (speaking more than one language). The participants were then asked to perform a variety of tasks to test auditory attention, visual attention, and language proficiency. The attention tasks were part of a well-established clinical tool called Test of Everyday Attention. They are used to determine your thought processes (cognition) and brain function.

    Through these studies, Dr. Bak and his team demonstrated that bilingualism had a significant impact on the ability of students to complete tasks of auditory attention and cognitive function. But there was no difference between monolingual and bilingual participants in the visual attention or language proficiency tests. These findings make sense to Dr. Bak. "Language learning is primarily an auditory process," he explained, "so we would expect gains primarily with regards to auditory attention."

    Dr. Bak and colleagues had shown the positive effects of bilingualism in many similar experiments with students. Next, Dr. Bak wanted to know whether the process of language learning itself could be beneficial to improve thinking or cognitive function. To test this hypothesis, Dr. Bak and colleagues compared the auditory attention of students of foreign languages with students of other humanities (e.g., English literature) in the first and fourth years of university. Students in the first year were just beginning their language training, whereas fourth-year language students had already had several years of language training and reached a considerable level of proficiency in their chosen language. The finding from this comparison showed that language learning over a four-year period at university had a significant impact on auditory attention. This impact was similar to that observed in students who were bilingual from an earlier age.

    Finally, Dr. Bak and his colleagues designed an experiment to compare the attention skills of students before and after a one-week intensive language course. Thirty-three students participated in this short intensive language course in Scottish Gaelic, one of the traditional languages of Scotland. These students were compared to 34 control participants. The control participants were split into two groups: active and passive. The active controls also participated in a course of similar intensity and duration but on a subject unrelated to language or language learning. The passive controls went about their usual routine.

    The effects of even a one week language course on auditory attention were impressive.

    All participants were asked to complete tasks to test their auditory attention before and after the one week period. In addition, the researchers followed up with half of the participants in the language course nine months after it had finished.

    Intense training, but only for a week

    The effects of even a one week language course on auditory attention were impressive. The language learners performed significantly better after one week of intensive training than both the passive and active controls. The active controls (who had taken a week-long intensive course on a different subject) fell somewhere between the experimental group and the passive controls, but did not achieve the same improvements as the language learners. These results remained true even after accounting for a wide range of ages (from 18 to 78 years of age) and differences in proficiency in Gaelic. Moreover, with just five hours of practice per week, the language learners maintained these improvements in auditory attention and cognition over time.

    "These are very promising findings," Dr. Bak commented. The fact that anyone at any time in their life can begin to learn a language to improve their cognitive and executive function skills is remarkable. Dr. Bak hypothesizes that learning a language changes the brain and makes it more adaptable, which improves brain plasticity. This adaptability leads to improved cognitive function. "This is an area of future research," remarks Dr. Bak.

    In future work, Dr. Bak hopes to identify the threshold at which the advantages of language learning kick in, as well as the amount of practice needed to retain improvements in mental function. Dr. Bak also plans to explore the potential cognitive benefits of music, which involves a similar diversity of cognitive skills as language learning.

    Dr. Thomas Bak is a Reader in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, UK. He was trained as a neurologist and psychiatrist and his cross-disciplinary research includes the fields of psychiatry, neuroscience, and linguistics. In his research, Dr. Bak focuses on the relationship between bilingualism, language learning and cognitive function. When not in the laboratory, Dr. Bak enjoys traveling, mountaineering and spending time with his family.

    For More Information:

    1. Bak, T. et al. 2016. “Novelty, Challenge, and Practice: The Impact of Intensive Language Learning on Attentional Functions.” PLoS One.
    2. Vega-Mendoza, M. 2015. “The impact of late, non-balanced bilingualism on cognitive performance.” Cognition, 137: 40-46.
    3. Bak, T. et al. 2014. “Never too late? An advantage on tests of auditory attention extends to late bilinguals.” Frontiers in Psychology, 5(485).

    To Learn More:

    1. Bak Research: http://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/thomas-bak
    2. Bilingualism Matters. http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/

    Newspaper Articles

    1. Language learning aids attention, study says.
    2. Learning a language can boost mental agility in just one week.
    3. Age no barrier to learning a new language, say Edinburgh University experts.
    4. Learning a new language boosts mental skills in one week.

    Written by Rebecca Kranz with Andrea Gwosdow, PhD at www.gwosdow.com


All content on this site is © Massachusetts Society for Medical Research or others. Please read our copyright statement — it is important.

Mariana Vega-Mendoza (l), Dr. Thomas Bak (c), and Maddie Long (r)

Mariana Vega-Mendoza

Maddie Long

Interviews & Programs

1. Thomas Bak on BBC Radio Scotland

2. Benefits of Bilingualism - Part Two

Want to know what Scottish Gaelic sounds like? Listen here.

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