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Learning a new language is good for your brain.

Richelle Szypulski
February 02, 2017

The desire to learn a new language is often born of a desire to find a deeper experience abroad.

When traveling to a country with a language that’s not native to your tongue, translation apps are helpful, but only to a certain extent. They enable you to decipher a menu, but not necessarily to spark up a conversation with your server. Fluency in the local language makes for far more discovery potential.

Learning to speak a second language can be challenging, for sure, but that’s because you’re training your brain to do something much more complex than memorizing new words and their proper pronunciations. You’re expanding your thought capability, in more ways than one.

Bilingualism provides benefits beyond the ability to ask for directions or to order a coffee without accidentally receiving a large dessert platter. (What a happy accident, though, right?) The brains of polyglots operate differently than those of unilingual folk. Regular use of a second language sharpens many cognitive skills, and it’s even been found to make you appear more attractive.

To acquire these new language skills, there are tons of options: signing up for a class, downloading an app like Duolingo, or trying a more intensive software, like Rosetta Stone—which is currently offering a deal to save 40 percent on its Complete Set until February 17. With any of these services, commitment is key.

Consistently practicing—even if you dedicate just 15 minutes a day—is enough to reap the cognitive rewards that accompany second language learning.

Attention improves, and pretty quickly.

This is not your excuse to give up when verb conjugations are just too daunting, but research shows even a short period of learning a new language is enough to boost mental agility. A 2016 University of Edinburgh study that assessed 33 students aged 18 to 78 who had taken part in a one-week Scottish Gaelic course found an increase in several aspects of mental alertness—regardless of age—in students, when compared to a group who had taken a non-language course and a group that had not taken a course at all.

Multitasking comes more naturally.

A Pennsylvania State University study found bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals when working on multiple projects simultaneously. It’s more natural for the bilingual brain to quickly edit out information that’s irrelevant and hone in on what’s important. Researchers traced the source of these enhanced task-switching skills to the way bilinguals mentally juggle both languages. The inner negotiation that occurs any time they speak acts as a “mental gymnasium,” training the brain to perceive and evaluate priorities quickly.

Decision making is simpler in a foreign language.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that we are able to think more rationally, and with less bias, when we use a foreign tongue to weigh the options of a decision. Surprisingly, foreign language framing also reduces loss aversion. They attributed these effects to the fact that a foreign language permits greater emotional and cognitive distance when evaluating what’s at risk in the decision.

Memory skills are better protected.

A study conducted in Luxembourg found those who speak more than two languages may be at lower risk of onset memory problems like Alzheimer’s and dementia, stating that multilingualism has “a protective effect on memory in seniors who practice foreign languages over their lifetime or at the time of the study.” And the benefit appears to be a compounding one, as the risk proved lowest in those fluent in four or more languages.

Your brain actually gets bigger.

A 2014 study titled “Age of language learning shapes brain structure” found the cortical thickness—which is generally associated with higher intelligence—of the bilingual brain is only altered when language learning happens later in life, after developing proficiency in their first language. The later a second language is acquired, the greater the effect on brain structure increase, the study found. Also, bilingual speakers who use both languages often may have more grey matter in the brain regions responsible for attention, inhibition, and short-term memory, according to recent research from the Georgetown University Medical Center.

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