Learning Languages Modifies Brain Network

517097293According to a Sino-American study published recently in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, learning a new language changes your brain network both structurally and functionally.

“Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics, and information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”

The study followed 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.

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, the researchers suggested after 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,. “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, the team has 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.

Yang, J., et al., Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study, Journal of Neurolinguistics (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.09.004


  1. Yep, of course learning a language will alter your brain. However the big issue that needs to be looked at is, why is it that of so many people who attempt to learn a language, so few succeed.

    So before you set out to learn a language give some thought to this issue, meaning be careful about how you go about it. Of course you can succeed, as we all did learning our first, however later on it seems to get “complicated” and difficult. It does not need to be. What child thought it was too difficult to learn their first?

    They just did it, without studying grammar, doing drills, answering all the questions in text books, etc Here are some thoughts on how you can make it “easy” on yourself.

  2. Learning our first language is an oral experience where we hear our first words from our surrounding loved ones.
    As toddlers we mimic what we hear from our family.
    As we get older we experiment and model language we hear and respond to.
    Learning a language is processual in nature. It is a time based process and developmental in stages.
    Learning a second language as an adult often is more difficult as we learn a language in a formal process having to grammatically deduce what we have just spoken. Oral learning is implicit through action, formally learning language is explicit in nature requiring cognitive interpreting of information.
    This is why it is often difficult to learn a second language. If we learn it firstly orally through idiomatic phrases and learning sentences through memorisation it is easier.
    Dr Sylvana Augustyniak

  3. “This is why it is often difficult to learn a second language. If we learn it firstly orally through idiomatic phrases and learning sentences through memorisation it is easier.”

    Ok, Dr Augustyniak, it might be easier, but recognising grammatical patterns just listening and memorising idiomatic sentences it simply takes ages, and learning new words goes without saying. Toddlers take years of full immersion to be able to speak fluently (with a limited vocabulary) and the only thing they have to do is learn about what surrounds them (as if learning was a small thing). As an adult one has many more to think about (work, love, personal interests and problems, family and friends) and is not entirely focused on learning.

    This is when grammar comes in, as a shortcut. You are given a table of verbs so you don’t have to be exposed N times to the correct form to pick it up on your own. Also, basic grammar is at least a key tool for you to produce your own sentences instead of parrot-like repetition, and personalisation of language is pivotal in learning a language.

    Simone Bais, Spanish and Italian teacher

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