The Benefits of Learning a Language Later in Life

Posted on 07. Apr, 2014 by in Language Learning, Trends

Image © laogooli on flickr.com

Image © laogooli on flickr.com

There’s a common misconception that is not possible, or practical, to learn a new language after infancy. It’s true that toddlers who are raised bilingual display increased cognitive development, including more creativity and better problem-solving skills, than monolingual children. It’s also true that acquiring a language as an adult requires significantly more effort than picking it up as a toddler. While some of the cognitive benefits are less attainable as we age, there is no magical age at which a you lose your ability to learn a language. Even late in life, there is value in learning a new language. Just ask your brain.

Acquiring a language later in life can literally grow your brain. A study conducted by a team at Lund University focused on the cognitive effects of language learning on a group of military-aged participants. After three months of intensive study, the Arabic, Russian, and Dari students at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy were given MRI scans that revealed specific parts of the brain had grown in size. The results showed growth in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain responsible for developing new knowledge and consolidating short-term memory into long-term memory.

While the participants who had already learned two languages from birth showed more advanced proficiency in their new language of study, all participants, regardless of age and linguistic background, exhibited these benefits. And the benefits don’t stop there—they last throughout your life, benefiting you through the aging process.

Bilingualism delays the effects of aging, and not just in people raised bilingual. A study by Ellen Bialystok of York University revealed that bilingual Alzheimer patients were diagnosed with the disease an average of four years later than their monolingual counterparts. In a newer experiment, she is using CT scans to examine the brains of dementia sufferers. All of the subjects were the same age and displayed the same cognitive level, but the physical effects on the bilinguals’ brains were more advanced.

That doesn’t sound good, right? But if you think about it, the bilingual brain is able to compensate and function at the same level despite more advanced degradation. Learning a new language later in life exercises your brain, effectively staving off some aspects of age-related decline.

While learning a new language may take considerably more effort for adults than infants, the benefits–cognitive, communicative, and career-wise—outweigh the costs, don’t you think?

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8 Responses to “The Benefits of Learning a Language Later in Life”

  1. Erin 10 May 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    “It’s true that toddlers who are raised bilingual display increased cognitive development, including more creativity and better problem-solving skills, than monolingual children.”

    Can you list a source to verify this please? :)

  2. Cristian Ivan 11 May 2014 at 12:57 am #

    Hello,

    it is not true to say, that children learn a language easier, faster or with less effort than the adults. The contrary applies!

    The adults (provided they are motivated) have lots of advantages when it comes to learning languages.
    Adults:
    -can read and write (language courses)
    -know and understand grammar rules (provided they heard the word grammar before)
    -they already master a language even if it is their mother tongue

    I could probably name another few reasons for proving that it is wrong to saz that children learn faster or better than adults…again with the condition that the adults are motivated to do so!!!

  3. A. Houk 12 May 2014 at 10:52 am #

    I think children learn language “easier” because they don’t over think it. Learning our native languages is not like learning a second language later on (for example, we have some concept of it and how it’s used before entering school and learning to read/write). I feel that kids being able to use profanity in a proper context (before really having exposure to those things) is a prime example of that.

    Learning new languages, even though I can read and write, doesn’t necessarily make it easier to wrap my English thinking and functioning mind around when those rules simply don’t apply to another language. Granted, that doesn’t mean I can’t, or don’t plan on giving it all I’ve got to learn a language I want to speak. It just takes a little more effort and motivation on my part, and retraining the brain a bit.

  4. billy.elliott 15 May 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly with A. Houk. There is something intangible about the young brain that allows for different partitions for different languages…

    There is also the fact that it’s probably a factor of time at work, too. A younger person’s brain has longer to make the necessary associations that are required to translate ‘life’ not words into another language.

    Lastly, I think about my college French classes. Myself an American and life long French student saw my fellow students struggle mightily with pronunciation and concepts. This in addition to missing out on the very basics – like days of the week or numbers.

    I think the adult brain can do just about anything it would like to do, but I have to say that a child’s brain is probably better suited for this type of endeavor PRECICELY because there has been no prior language skills laid down. . .

  5. Michael 10 November 2014 at 10:25 am #

    It’s also a lot better than sitting on the couch watching the boob tube and stuffing yourself with fattening non nutritious snacks. Learning a new language is one key to leading a healthier saner life. When you can communicate better with people you are usually more understanding and curious about their culture, which can get you out and about more leading to more exercise.


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