60-Second Mind

Studying Languages Can Grow the Brain

Researchers have found that people who study languages tend to show significant growth in certain areas of the brain. Christie Nicholson reports

Learning a new language can grow one’s perspective. Now scientists find that learning languages grows parts of the brain.


Scientists studied the brains of students in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, who are required to learn new languages at an alarmingly fast rate. Many must become fluent in Arabic, Russian and the Persian dialect Dari in just 13 months. The researchers compared the brains of these students to the brains of medical students who also have to learn a tremendous amount in a very short period of time, but without the focus on languages.


The brains of the language learners exhibited significant new growth in the hippocampus and in parts of the cerebral cortex. The medical students’ brains showed no observed growth. The study was in the journal NeuroImage.


Interestingly, the amount of growth in the brains of the linguists correlated with better skills—so those with better language skills also experienced more growth in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex that relate to language. For other students who had to work harder to improve their language skills, the scientists found greater growth in the motor area of the cerebral cortex. Where and how much change take place in the brain are linked to how easily one picks up a language. But it remains to be seen why this is.


—Christie Nicholson


[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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