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Learning Foreign Languages Can Sharpen Our Brains

Summary: According to researchers, learning a new language may help improve brain plasticity and information encoding.

Source: HSE.

Scientists from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) together with colleagues from the University of Helsinki have discovered that learning foreign languages enhances the our brain’s plasticity and its ability to code information. The more foreign languages we learn, the more effectively our brain reacts and processes the data accumulated in the course of learning. An article of Yury Shtyrov, Leading Research Fellow of the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making, Lilli Kimppa and Teija Kujala (University of Helsinki) summarizing the new findings has been recently published in Scientific Reports.

According to the study, the neurophysiological mechanics of language and speech acquisition are underexplored when compared to the brain’s other functions. The reason for such scarce attention is the inability to study verbal function on test animals.

Researchers carried out experiments where the brain’s electrical activity was measured with EEG (electroencephalography). Twenty-two students in total (10 male and 12 female) participated in the investigation, with the average age being 24. The subjects had electrodes placed on their heads and then listened to recordings of different words in their native language, as well in foreign languages, both known and completely unknown by the subjects. When the known or unknown words popped up, changes in the brain’s activity were tracked. Researchers especially focused on the speed at which the brain readjusted its activity to treat unknown words. Afterwards, the accrued neurophysiological data was compared to the subjects’ linguistic background: how many languages they knew, at which age they started to learn it, and so on. Apparently, the ability of the brain to quickly process information depends on one’s “linguistic anamneses.”

Image shows the word Hello written in different languages.

The experiment has shown that the brain’s electrical activity of those participants who had already known some foreign languages, was higher. Neurosciencenews image is for illustrative purposes only.

The experiment has shown that the brain’s electrical activity of those participants who had already known some foreign languages, was higher. The author of the study, Yuriy Shtyrov commented that the more languages someone mastered, the faster the neuron network coding the information on the new words was formed. Consequently, this new data stimulates the brain’s physiology: loading the mind with more knowledge boosts its elasticity.

Scientists believe that understanding how the brain functions in acquiring language is of crucial importance in diagnosing speech impediments after accidents, strokes, and other related conditions, and finding ways to treat them. Moreover, when we achieve better insight into the principles of creating and strengthening neuron networks, we will be able to harness these mechanisms, speed them up and improve the learning process.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Elena Sharova – HSE
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Individual language experience modulates rapid formation of cortical memory circuits for novel words” by Lilli Kimppa, Teija Kujala and Yury Shtyrov in Scientific Reports. Published online July 24 2016 doi:10.1038/srep30227

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
HSE. “Learning Foreign Languages Can Sharpen Our Brains.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 4 September 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/bilingual-brain-plasticity-4962/>.
HSE. (2016, September 4). Learning Foreign Languages Can Sharpen Our Brains. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 4, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/bilingual-brain-plasticity-4962/
HSE. “Learning Foreign Languages Can Sharpen Our Brains.” http://neurosciencenews.com/bilingual-brain-plasticity-4962/ (accessed September 4, 2016).

Abstract

Individual language experience modulates rapid formation of cortical memory circuits for novel words

Mastering multiple languages is an increasingly important ability in the modern world; furthermore, multilingualism may affect human learning abilities. Here, we test how the brain’s capacity to rapidly form new representations for spoken words is affected by prior individual experience in non-native language acquisition. Formation of new word memory traces is reflected in a neurophysiological response increase during a short exposure to novel lexicon. Therefore, we recorded changes in electrophysiological responses to phonologically native and non-native novel word-forms during a perceptual learning session, in which novel stimuli were repetitively presented to healthy adults in either ignore or attend conditions. We found that larger number of previously acquired languages and earlier average age of acquisition (AoA) predicted greater response increase to novel non-native word-forms. This suggests that early and extensive language experience is associated with greater neural flexibility for acquiring novel words with unfamiliar phonology. Conversely, later AoA was associated with a stronger response increase for phonologically native novel word-forms, indicating better tuning of neural linguistic circuits to native phonology. The results suggest that individual language experience has a strong effect on the neural mechanisms of word learning, and that it interacts with the phonological familiarity of the novel lexicon.

“Individual language experience modulates rapid formation of cortical memory circuits for novel words” by Lilli Kimppa, Teija Kujala and Yury Shtyrov in Scientific Reports. Published online July 24 2016 doi:10.1038/srep30227

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