Inglese, International

Language and the brain: benefits of being bilingual

One of the main characteristics that distinguishes human beings from animals is the use of communicating through a language. Language is a complex system that helps us to express feelings and ideas using the words in an orderly manner. Animals can communicate between them using sounds or smells. However they haven’t reached the ability of using specific sounds to define an object, feeling, action or specific characteristics creating a structured system, giving us the ability to express feelings and ideas. 

Many hypotheses have been created trying to explain the origin of the language. It is said that the first words could have been created by transforming the sounds of animals and objects into vocal sounds, trying to imitate them. Another popular belief says that the first words were interjections that expressed pain, happiness, anger, sadness. Despite that, it is hard to know the origins of language, there is no written evidence, all the hypotheses are based on comparisons between animal communication and the biological evolution of the human being.

One thing is clear, the ability of speaking a language was possible due to an increase in the size of the human brain. There is a specific region of the brain destined to the language, this region is divided in the Wernicke’s area, the Broca’s area and the angular gyrus. The Wernicke’s area function consists of the comprehension of the spoken language, while the Broca’s area is involved in the comprehension of grammar, the processing and the oral transmission of the language.

As we have seen above, language is a complex system. For this reason we wonder, how does the brain of someone who speaks more than one language work? There are different types of bilingualism.

  • The first type belongs to people who have learnt two languages simultaneously in their childhood.
  • There is a second group for people who have learnt a language during puberty.
  • The last group consists of people who have learnt a language in their adulthood (after the 20 years old).

Years ago, bilingualism was not considered good for children, since the general thought was that it could be confusing for children. However, researchers have discovered that learning a second language has many benefits in our brains, from childhood to old age. Children who speak a second language have a better ability to focus on doing a task, instead, monolingual children can be distracted more easily. It has been proven that bilingualism helps to prevent disorders like dementia or Alzheimer.

Many questions have emerged in relation to bilingualism. The first one would be, is the second language stored in the same regions of the first language? Several studies have shed some light on this, discovering that the ability of speaking a second language is developed in the same brain regions. 

These studies show that speaking more than one language changes the brain structure. It has been observed that bilingual brains have a denser grey matter, specially in the left side of the brain, where language functions are developed. This effect is even more dramatic in the first group, people who learnt a second language simultaneously in their childhood, and in people who reached a proficiency level. 

The benefits also appear in adulthood. For this reason, it is never too late to learn a new language, even if you are already an adult. Learning a language in adulthood helps to improve the brain function, providing a better memory and more mental flexibility. In the case of adults, the ability of speaking a second language is developed in an area next to the first language centers.

To conclude with the article, it would be necessary to make a reflection. Children and teenagers have a more flexible brain. It has been proven that the better age for learning a language reaches its peak at 10 years old, after this age the plasticity of the brain decreases year after year. This is the perfect age to control the language as a native speaker, making no grammar mistakes and having a good pronunciation. 

Although the general thought says that it is late to learn a language when you grow up, the adult brain can provide some advantages to learn a language. Children have less cognitive skills, as adults we can better understand complex situations and this helps us to better understand grammar rules, as it is said, “old dog new tricks”. In addition to this, while children can be easily distracted, adults put more attention on learning for longer periods, this is influenced by the real interest of someone for the language. 

In other words, children acquire language by imitation, listening native speakers, they have a better memory and a better capacity to imitate phonetic sounds. However, problem solving and analytical skills are developed with age, these can be quite useful to learn a new language, helping us to really understand how language works. For this reason, if you are thinking about learning a second language, it does not matter if you are a teenager or if you are already an adult, it is never too late to start.

Written by Sara García Sánchez

Message to reader: Any information on this blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended in any way to replace professional figures in the medical and consultancy fields.

Messaggio al lettore: Ogni informazione presente in questo blog è puramente a scopo informativo. Non si intende in nessun modo sostituire figure professionali in campo medico e di consulenza.


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