Brain wiring may impact grasp of second language

By Jesef Williams, UF Health Jacksonville • Published: February 2nd, 2015
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Have you ever wondered why some people can learn a second language much easier than others can? The answer may be found in the way our brains are wired.

Researchers at Penn State University have been studying how brain wiring relates to the development of second-language skills. In this study, the researchers also maintain that simply attempting to learn another language will likely give the brain an automatic boost. The findings were published recently in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

The researchers recruited 39 native English speakers and had 23 of them study Chinese vocabulary for six weeks. The participants’ brains were scanned using MRI before and after the trial.

Participants who had the most success learning Chinese also had brains that were better integrated. They had strong connections between certain brain regions, called nodes. The stronger the connections, the faster the nodes work together, fostering better learning and retention.

The study didn’t delve into why certain people have brains that are well integrated. Also, the researchers aren’t sure of the impact of factors such as stress and motivation on the ability to grasp a second language.

But as an aside, the research suggests that merely studying a second language for a while can positively impact the brain, regardless of the learner’s age. And even if you don’t have time to tackle another language such as French or Spanish, there are plenty of activities you can do instead that will also exercise the brain.

So when you’re playing chess, Scrabble or your favorite card game, the effect goes way beyond good fellowship and competition. You’re also giving your brain a great workout.