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Focus on Research: Learning new languages stimulates brain

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

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 his Penn State 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 functional magnetic resonance imaging 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.

“A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li, also co-chairman of Penn State’s 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 started to work 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.

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