Learning a New Language Changes Functionality and Structure of Brain Networks

Learning a new language changes your brain network both structurally and functionally, according to Penn State researchers. “Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”

Li and colleagues studied 39 native English speakers’ brains over a six-week period as half of the participants learned Chinese vocabulary. Of the subjects learning the new vocabulary, those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary.

The researchers also found that the participants who were successful learners had a more connected network than the other participants even before learning took place. A better-integrated brain network is more flexible and efficient, making the task of learning a new language easier. Li and colleagues report their results in a recent article published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

The efficiency of brain networks was defined by the researchers in terms of the strength and direction of connections, or edges, between brain regions of interest, or nodes. The stronger the edges going from one node to the next, the faster the nodes can work together, and the more efficient the network.

Participants each underwent two fMRI scans — one before the experiment began and one after — in order for the researchers to track neural changes. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.

Such changes, Li and colleagues suggested while reviewing a number of related studies, are consistent with anatomical changes that can occur in the brain as a result of learning a second language, no matter the age of the learner, as they reported in a recent issue of Cortex.

This image shows schematics of connectivity in the brain.
These are schematics of connectivity in the brain showing connectivity at two different times with strength indicated by line thickness. a) Is the connectivity of a successful learner, b) connectivity of less successful learner and c) is connectivity of non learners. Credit Li Lab, Penn State.

“A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li, also co-chair of the interdisciplinary graduate degree program in neuroscience. “We can still see anatomical changes in the brain [in the elderly], which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”

Meanwhile, Li and colleagues have begun working on interactive ways to teach language using virtual 3-D-like environments with situation-based learning to help the brain make some of those new connections more effectively. Such studies hold the promise that the process of learning a second language as an adult can in fact lead to both behavioral and physical changes that may approximate the patterns of learning a language as a child.

About this language and learning research

Also working on this research were Jing Yang, postdoctoral fellow, psychology; Kathleen Marie Gates, postdoctoral fellow, human development and family studies; Peter Molenaar, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies; Jennifer Legault, graduate student, neuroscience; and Kaitlyn A. Litcofsky, graduate student, psychology. Yang and Gates both held postdoctoral positions while conducting this research. Yang is now associate professor of applied linguistics, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China. Gates is now assistant professor of psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The National Science Foundation supported this research.

Contact: Victoria M. Indivero – Penn State
Source: Penn State press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Li Lab, Penn State and is adapted from the press release
Original Research: Full open access research for “Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study” by Jing Yang, Kathleen Marie Gates, Peter Molenaar, and Ping Li in Journal of Neurolinguistics. Published online October 11 2014 doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.09.004
Abstract for “Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: Anatomical changes in the human brain” by Ping Li, Jennifer Legault, and Kaitlyn A. Litcofsky in Cortex. Published online September 14 2014 doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2014.05.001

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study

A great deal of research has examined behavioral performance changes associated with second language learning. But what changes are taking place in the brain as learning progresses? How can we identify differences in brain changes that reflect successes of learning? To answer these questions, we conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to examine the neural activities associated with second language word learning. Participants were 39 native English speakers who had no prior knowledge of Chinese or other tonal language, and were trained to learn a novel tonal vocabulary in a six-week training session. Functional MRI scans as well as behavioral performances were obtained from these learners at two different times (pre- and post-training). We performed region of interest (ROI) and connectivity analyses to identify effective connectivity changes associated with success in second language word learning. We compared a learner group with a control group, and also examined the differences between successful learners and less successful learners within the learner group across the two time points. Our results indicated that (1) after training, learners and non-learners rely on different patterns of brain networks to process tonal and lexical information of target L2 words; (2) within the learner group, successful learners compared to less successful learners showed significant differences in language-related regions; and (3) successful learners compared to less successful learners showed a more coherent and integrated multi-path brain network. These results suggest that second language experience shapes neural changes in short-term training, and that analyses of these neural changes also reflect individual differences in learning success.

“Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study” by Jing Yang, Kathleen Marie Gates, Peter Molenaar, and Ping Li in Journal of Neurolinguistics. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.09.004.

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