How does your brain change when you learn a language?



Last friday night, while waiting for the subway, we started a nice conversation regarding the human ability to learn different languages and how does the brain can change when learning new languages. A couple of friends of mine mentioned some new studies which display that although our brain is ready to learn up to 25 languages once we reach a certain level of knowledge we tend to mix all of them. But what exactly happens when we learn a new language? How does our brain change when we learn a language?


Understanding language is one of the hardest things your brain does


Due to the fact that while we are learning a new language we are creating new neural pathways in our brain, the benefits of learning a new language are proportional to the effort expended by the brain.  The older we are the more difficult is to learn new languages.

Many scientific studies had shown that children use the deep motor of the brain to learn new languages while adults need to learn them consciously.  Despite the effort that our brain has to do, to learn a new language provide us with some benefits:

  • Increase concentration, intelligence and memory skills
  • Lower risks of Alzheimer
  • People who speak two or more languages have better cognitive abilities than people who only speak one
  • Learning a new language help to increase the hippocampus (the area of the brain that forms and stores our memories)
  • According to the Linguistic Relativity theory (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), learning new languages change the way we see the world


Regarding all the proven benefits of language learning we should better start studying as much new languages as possible (until 25 our brain has space enough) or maybe not? But before forcing our brain to struggle among different languages we should ask ourselves the following question: Which is my goal?

If you really want to be fluent in a language, why don´t you better start learning that language until you reach a certain level of fluency. Then you can just maintain that language and start studying another one, otherwise you risk to don´t be fluent in any of them.

Language mix-up happens 


Once we reach a certain level of fluency our brain has to work harder to separate the information and choose the right words at the right time. The Language Transfer theory shows that language mix-up really exists, also by native speakers.

Transfer may occur conscious or unconscious. In the first case, it refers to unskilled language users which are influenced by their mother tongue while writing or speaking. However, the unconscious transfer refers to non-native speakers which may not realize the difference between structures and internal rules of the language, this transfer is usually overlooked by native speakers.

I am sure you are all familiar with all this transfers. Do you remember when you started learning a new language? At that certain point we all suffered the conscious transfer, most of the times when writing an essay. However, other studies show that at a certain fluency level our brain tend to mix the words of the different languages that we speak, regardless of whether any of them is your mother tongue or not. Does is happen to you? 

As an expat I am used to speak a different language depending on who is my listener and on the situation. Learning new languages is always an easy challenge which I love to accomplish. Recently I found out twoel acento funny things. On the one hand, I realized I mix French and German when I am tired. Sometimes I start a
sentence in German and I end it up in French (this used to happen to a friend of mine who studied in an American School when we were young, I always find it so cute…) On the other hand, a couple of days ago I found myself wondering why it is so hard for me to talk to one of my colleagues in English every time he tries to improve his English skills by talking to me.

Recently, I have read an article that explained how bilingual babies associate each language to concrete situations and people so that they can recognize which language is the most accurate for each moment. Might it also happen to multilingual adults? Maybe our brain also needs to associate people and context to a concrete language so that our neuronal paths can work rapidly and be more efficient, who knows…

And what about you, did the language transfer also happen to you? Have you ever tried to learn multiple languages at the same time? Do you know any other interesting theory? Share your experiences in the comments below! 

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