Learning New Languages for Brain Health

The Cognitive Therapeutics Method™ targets five primary cognitive domains in the brain that have been shown to be affected by cognitive decline. The five domains include attention, memory, visual-spatial perception, executive functioning and language. In this post, we will focus on language, and the abilities of people that speak multiple languages. Language refers to the ability to execute verbal functions which encompass speech, reading and writing.

In the article “How to Learn 30 Languages”, David Robson visits the 2015 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, Germany where polyglots, or people that speak multiple languages, and an increasing number of hyperglots, or people who speak at least 10 languages, convene.

In this particular gathering, the polyglots come together in small groups to play various games, such as a fast-paced activity involving the interpretation of two languages simultaneously. Polyglots are so impressive because learning even just a single language can be difficult. But why exactly is it so difficult to learn a language?

Learning a new language is demanding on the brain because it involves many different systems, including procedural memory (muscle memory to perfect an accent), declarative memory (the ability to remember facts, including thousands of new vocabulary words along with grammar rules), as well as explicit and implicit memory.  Implicit memory is a system that programs language as “second nature”, allowing for fluency.

The extensive mental workout of learning a new language has huge benefits. It engages and strengthens language, memory and attention centers in the brain. Similarly, the Cognitive Therapeutics Method focuses on these primary domains.

Learning a new language can also help build cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s protective mechanism to help delay symptoms of cognitive decline. Building cognitive reserve promotes long-term brain health, and previous studies have found that individuals who speak two languages delayed a diagnosis of dementia by five years, while those that spoke four or more languages delayed a diagnosis by nine years.

You may have heard that there is a “critical period” in one’s youth to learn a new language, but the majority of polyglots and hyperglots learned languages in their later years. What’s the secret? Instead of focusing on the rules and structure of the language, they focus on taking on a new identity and making new friendships. At the beginning, we mentioned a game where they spoke two languages – advanced hyperglots can interchangeably use twenty languages in a single conversation. By taking on different “cultural skins”, their brains allow them to freely and easily pass between languages. Psychologists have long known that people take on different personality traits when speaking different languages. This adaptation allows them to separate their identities, even their memories, based on the language they are using.

Learning a new language will engage your memory and attention centers, promote long-term brain health and widen your social experience. Additionally, learning a new language can increase neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. David Robson recommends practicing little and often; start off by practicing for 15 minutes a day, and then increase it to 15 minutes twice a day. Your brain will thank you!