How Does Learning a Language Affect the Brain, and How Can Teachers Harness the Benefits?

Learning another language can boost brain plasticity and increase empathy, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. How can teachers harness this?

Learning another language has a huge effect on our brains, from boosting brain plasticity to increasing empathy and critical thinking. Let’s take a look at the research and pinpoint the most important benefits of learning languages, and how teachers can amplify these advantages to improve outcomes.

It is thought that over half the people in the world speak more than one language and, as the world becomes more globalised and we face more shared challenges, speaking more than one language takes on new importance. To address future global issues, we’ll need to work together across languages, cultures, religions and nationalities and for that, we need the language skills, better empathy, to be able to think critically and to be able to adapt quickly to new situations. Luckily, these are all skills that learning a second language helps to foster.

How learning a language affects the brain

When exploring what learning a language does to the brain, it makes sense to start with neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, since that determines how well we learn and for how long. The more the brain can adapt and change, the more we can learn. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to develop and change in response to stimuli, and learning a second language has a significant, positive effect on plasticity. Recent studies have spoken of these benefits helping to hold age-related conditions such as dementia at bay.

When we increase the information in our brains, we need to be able to file and sort that information so we can find it again quickly when we need it. The mental structures that we use to organise knowledge are known as schema. As cognitive processes go, these schemas are vital for everything from memory, understanding others, problem-solving and critical thinking. When we speak another language, we become adept at categorising and accessing information quickly, using our executive function skills.

Executive function – the CEO section of the brain

From self-awareness and non-verbal working memory to self-motivation and problem solving, executive function covers a crucial set of mental skills. The term executive functions is a business metaphor that pinpoints the essential skills we use to organise and regulate our lives, in the same way a chief executive would use their skills to run a business. They include attention, planning, working memory, abstract thinking, self-control, moral reasoning and decision making. The brains of bilingual children become accustomed to looking for different solutions that consider context, a key element of problem solving. This is because the ability to select the right language for the right context relies on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is the area of the brain thought necessary to disregard the appropriate distractors; in this case, the other language. The brain needs to work at suppressing the other language to allow the right one to take over and that hones our ability to manage cognitive conflict.

When to stop, when to go – thinking critically and building control

There is a simple cognitive conflict test in which the names of colours are written in different colours (‘green’ written in blue, for instance) and respondents have to say the colour that the word is written in. This is trickier than it sounds because it takes our brains longer to process the colour of the letters than it does to read the word. Those who speak more than one language perform better in this test than monolingual participants. And although the brain isn’t a muscle, it often behaves like one, so this constant work results in more grey matter in the ACC amongst bilingual people than their monolingual counterparts.

In addition, the process of ‘switching’ a language on and actively suppressing the words, grammar and structure of your other language also helps improve self-control, which is often a good indicator of academic success.

Make the most of autonomy, games and active learning

When looking at ways to capitalise on the beneficial changes to the brain that language learning brings, building on self-control and self-direction to help students become independent learners should be top of the list. In part, this is because independent learning extends learning beyond the school in meaningful ways, and this will be useful if we face future school closures as a result of lockdowns. A useful method to try for this is flipped learning.

A teaching tactic that uses metacognitive principles, the flipped classroom dates back quite a few years now but we are paying more attention to it, and to blended learning, as a result of school closures. A simple concept, flipped learning asks students to tackle the lower levels of learning before the class then engage in higher cognitive levels of learning with their peers and teachers.  For teachers who want to try this approach out, free webinars can be a useful guide.

It’s never just play

Contemporary US author and play specialist O. Fred Donaldson said it well; “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.”

I saw the evidence of this time and time again in the classroom. Young children learn well when they’re engaged, and they respond best to humour and whimsy in the learning process. They need to be able to use imagination to create context for the things they are learning that they cannot readily see, touch or interact with. When we created games for our students we quickly found that these games helped children build a solid foundation in a new language, and games can be a great tool for scaffolding learning for students.

In light of the disruption to education this year, the benefits of learning a new language should not be ignored. As schools return, helping young learners overcome the past few months is understandably a priority; helping their brains develop so that learning becomes even more effective isn’t just sensible, it’s necessary.

Written by Jason Bakkum for EnglishClub | August 2020
Jason Bakkum is a language teacher and co-founder of global language learning company Studycat.

8 comments

  • animoto says:

    com on

  • Kay_CN says:

    Great work. Thanks for sharing. My students and I think this is very helpful.

  • The King Of Love From IRAN says:

    It’s very important subject.
    Thank you for sharing it with us,

  • Marilou T. Ponce says:

    Insightful topic…

  • Marilou T. Ponce says:

    Very true,make our students more independent learners.

  • Marilou T. Ponce says:

    Very nice and interesting topic.

  • Milos says:

    Very true! Now I understand, among all other things, why teaching within context is to, indirectly, make our students more independent learners, in a more meaningful way, rather than fostering their dependency on us!

  • Adele du Toit says:

    Really insightful.

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