Do languages make your brain bigger?

Jan 19, 2022

Have you seen this headline anywhere? “Languages make your brain bigger - FACT!” 🧠 It’s the kind of headline that sounds amazing, but oversimplified, so I asked our multilingual ambassador, neuroscientist Dr Thomas Bak, for the low-down.

Any question to do with brains is, of course, a complex question. Thomas told me it’s fair to say there’s quite a bit of evidence showing a measurable increase in specific parts of the brain either as a result of language learning (e.g in Martenson et al., 2012) or bilingualism (Abutalebi et al., 2015; Crinion et al., 2009).

Bilingualism could increase grey matter which may slow down cognitive decline as we get older (see Abutalebi et al., 2015, whose bilingual participants had started learning their second language of either English or Mandarin between age 2 and 22 years). However, Klein et al. (2013) found that learning two languages simultaneously from birth did not result in physical differences from monolinguals (in their cortical thickness) compared to people who had learned their second language later in childhood, who showed differences in brain structure. 

These studies of bilinguals and monolinguals used MRI scans, which show how the physical structure of the brain changes. They were able to isolate bilingualism or specifically (in Crinion et al., 2009) learning a tonal language like Chinese, as a possible reason for increased density in grey or white brain matter.

HOWEVER, it is really tricky to directly link physical changes in brain shape, density, size etc. with behavioural or cognitive differences. We have to be careful interpreting results of studies where participants come from very different cultural and social backgrounds. And it’s not as simple as saying “languages make your brain bigger, which directly leads to slower cognitive decline in old age”.

But we could cautiously say that there is converging evidence from different neuroimaging techniques such as MRI scans to look at structure, and fMRI to look at functions, which is starting to paint a picture of how learning languages at any point in our lives (from birth, later childhood, or as adults) has a positive correlation with both brain structure and function. But as with any scientific study, correlation does not equal causation! 

As I’ve heard Thomas say at many of his wonderful talks, languages and music are both amazing workouts for our brains. It is never too early, or too late, to get started! The best time to give your brain some valuable exercise is always now and at Babel Babies you can combine music *and* language, so I’d argue that it’s a double win! 🧠

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