Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language: Research Reveals

Learning a new language can have a number of cognitive benefits, as people who speak more than one language improve their problem-solving skills, concentration and ability to multitask. Bilingual people are better able to switch between different tasks and not be distracted by changes in their environment than monolingual people. Moreover, people who have learned a foreign language have shown better problem-solving skills than their monolingual counterparts.

If all this is not enough to motivate you to learn a new language, it should also be said that learning a second language can help to avert mental ageing and cognitive decline, especially in the elderly and in people with mental health problems.

Need to see the proof? Here are 8 situations in which research reveals learning a second language improves our cognitive function.


This post is the third of a series on Benefits of Learning a Second Language. Here are links to the other posts in the series:

  1. 35 Ways to Benefit from Learning a Second Language: Introduction
  2. Personal and Social Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  3. Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language (this post)
  4. Psychological Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  5. Academic Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  6. Professional Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  7. Language Learning Benefits of Learning a Second Language

Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language

#1 Increases Brain Size

There is currently a great deal of interest in the research community into the impacts on our brain from language learning. An extraordinary amount of research into the cognitive aspects of language learning has occurred, giving us an amazing reservoir of information. And some of the findings have been fascinating!

Language learning has an impact on many areas of brain function. Both right and left hemispheres of the brain are involved, and benefit from language learning.

The left frontal lobe involves speech production and articulation; the left temporal lobe is responsible for language comprehension and development; the right frontal lobe is concerned with self awareness and sensory coordination; the hippocampus has a role in learning and memory. All of them are affected by language learning in both younger and older adults.

In short, learning a second language increases the brain’s size in several areas.

Maybe you are like me, and your response to the thought of having a bigger brain is to ask ‘Why is that a good thing? Does a big brain mean a better brain? What cognitive benefits does the brain growth caused by learning a second language bring?’

Specifically in the human brain, the areas that grow because of learning a second language are responsible for:

As you can see, language learning has an incredibly pervasive impact. It is important to know that brain size is not the only important factor in terms of brain function – but it does appear to help. So let’s have a closer look.


#2 Stronger Memory

Working Memory is the ability to hold new information for a very short time, around 2 or 3 seconds, in order to do something with it. Sort of like writing something on a sticky note so you can come back to it in a minute, then you throw it away.

A good working memory is very important to be able to learn languages (for example, to learn new vocab or understand how a verb conjugates), but interestingly, the effect also works in reverse: switching between languages builds working memory. Studies show that bilinguals are better at retaining shopping lists, names, and directions.


#3 – Raises IQ

As mentioned previously, learning languages results in larger brains which were linked to higher IQ levels. Research has also found that bilinguals and multilinguists have a higher density of grey matter – dark tissue found in the brain and spinal cord – than monolingual individuals.

The grey matter processes information before passing it to the white matter. Being present throughout the entire nervous system, the grey matter enables us to control movement, emotions, and memory. It is no wonder that people with denser grey matter appear to score better in IQ tests compared to those with less dense grey matter.

Language learning can increase IQ.

IQ, or “intelligence quotient” is not a measure of intelligence, exactly. It is the result of a test that should include aspects of visual-spatial processing and auditory processing, short-term memory, and processing speed – attributes that help in academic performance. It is a measure of an individual’s ability to learn new material, and how quickly they can learn it.

IQ is associated with higher family income, higher socioeconomic status, school and occupational performance, military training assignments, law-abidingness, healthful habits, illness, and morality.

Even though intelligence is a result of various innate and surrounding factors, it is obvious that learning and knowing more than one language increases the ability to learn other new things, and one can gain many benefits from this.


#4 – Faster Multi-Tasking

Speaking two languages, and switching between them, makes you better at multi-tasking in other tasks, too.

It involves the ability to first stop engaging in a task (inhibitory control), and then begin engaging in a second task – such as stopping using one language, and switching to another (known as ‘code-switching‘).

Bilinguals have better executive functioning abilities, can focus their attention, and can disregard distractions, and in tests they were able to switch between tasks quickly and easily (just as they are able to switch between languages).

Speaking more than one language helps improve multi-tasking.

Researchers believe that constantly switching between languages means the attention and inhibition processes in the brain are constantly engaged, and this leads to strengthened control processes and sensory processing, sometimes referred to as ‘Cognitive Flexibility‘.


#5 – Better Concentration

Knowing two or more languages helps to improve concentration skills.

Those attention and inhibition processes developed through learning and using a second language also help you concentrate better on the task at hand, and be more effective at ignoring distractions.

People who know more than one language are able to pay attention for around 20% longer than their monolingual friends. 


#6 – Apply Existing Knowledge to New Situations

Studies have also indicated that bilingualism is correlated with the development of memory generalisation abilities. That is, bilingual individuals more readily take knowledge they have learned in the past and apply it to new situations, if the situations are similar.


#7 – Increases Creativity in Problem Solving

By learning a seond language, we strengthen our abilities to change our environments, use our environments, and work cooperatively with other people, to create a more conducive situation for positive outcomes.

This ability to create solutions is called divergent thinking. It is tested by inviting the participant to undertake such tasks as creating creative titles for pictures, expressions, imagery and humor, and measure participants’ divergent thinking in four areas:

  • fluency – how many answers are given in response to the stimulus
  • flexibility – the number of different categories in the answers,
  • originality – the degree to which the responses differ from the standard,
  • elaboration – how much detail is given in the answers.
Diagram depicting a 'Divergent Thinking' process
A map of how Divergent Thinking works by Aishwarya.gudadhe

Research specifically into creative thinking skills of bilingual children has repeatedly found correlation between the two attributes.

They think this happens for a couple of reasons. Firstly, bilingual children acquire the conceptual systems of both languages and their corresponding cultures, which gives them a wider base from which to explore new ideas.

That in turn increases the number of ideas they might come up with (corresponding to the concepts of fluency and originality).

Secondly, the immersion in the various cultural environments in addition to improved executive function also gives the bilingual person a richer experience and stronger cognitive position upon which to base further learning.

In kid’s language – we learn to ‘use our words‘ to negotiate with others, to change situations so we like what is happening more, to reach agreement.

We can create the verbal reasoning to make our case, respond to another’s proposals, use language to negotiate quite precisely, decide the ‘rules of the game’.

And all in a ‘novel’ fashion, which means that we don’t have to have seen it done before, we can just ‘make it up’ in an effective manner.

Great skills for marketers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, teachers, parents – any profession where we are hoping to influence others!

I’m sure this is one of the reasons that, as we mentioned in the second post of this series, knowing another language helps us to be more socially flexible.

#8 – Quicker to Notice Changes in Environment

Studies with both adults and babies have shown that bilingual people seem to have a heightened ability to monitor their environment.

It also seems to take them less mental energy to achieve this awareness.

These benefits are thought to happen because of how language switching strengthens their brain.

“It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving,” Albert Costa, one of the researchers is quoted as saying.

Conclusion

In many ways, the brain is like a muscle – it responds well to being used, and not so well to being neglected.

Learning languages is like an extensive cross-fit workout for the brain. It causes growth and new neural connections all around.

Brains grow with new knowledge, such as adding vocabulary and learning grammar rules, and it also grows in the ability to apply knowledge to new situations.

The use of language engages so many different parts of our brain that it is not surprising that it also results in development of other cognitive functions.

Have you noticed any cognitive benefits from learning a second language? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments section below!


If you enjoyed this post on the Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language, here are links to the rest of the series on the Benefits of Learning a Second Language:

  1. 35 Ways to Benefit from Learning a Second Language: Introduction
  2. Personal and Social Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  3. Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language (this post)
  4. Psychological Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  5. Academic Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  6. Professional Benefits of Learning a Second Language
  7. Language Learning Benefits of Learning a Second Language

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