Language immersion vs. life-long language learning: We are never too old to train our brain!

There is more and more evidence out there to support the beneficial effects bilingualism has on the human brain. Therefore, the importance of learning languages simply cannot be stressed enough.

For years now, I have been telling my students how important it is to learn another language, but also to keep practicing it. I have just stumbled upon an interesting research that studies the effects of language immersion on the integrity of the human brain.

A slight warning: it is quite a technical read, but with a very encouraging conclusion (!).

Dr. Christos Pliatsikas, lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kent, has performed a research focused on language immersion. 20 young bilinguals with an average age of 30-years-old who had lived in the UK for at least 13 months and were highly-proficient and active users of English as a second language, were compared to 25 monolingual adults of the same age and educational level. The bilinguals in this study were not undergoing any language training at the time. Instead, these participants were  highly-proficient “immersed” bilinguals.

As previous research by Pliatsikas suggested that the grey matter structure in a bilingual brain shows changes, he predicted that the impact of language immersion would be similar on the white matter for the bilinguals in this study.

For those of you who are not familiar with grey and white matter in the human body, I will attempt to explain. Not an easy task without getting very technical, but I hope I can shed some clarity on the matter. (ha ha ;) )

Grey matter is present in the human body in the brain and the spiral cord. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. It consists of neuronal cell bodiesneuropil - dendrites and myelinated as well as unmyelinated axons)glial cells and capillaries. Like I said, very technical, but I have left the Wikipedia links for you to look these terms up if you’re interested.
What is important to know is that neurons are needed to make all connections in the brain, and should therefore be thought of as the “wires” of the brain. Grey matter contains numerous cell bodies and relatively few myelinated axons. On the contrary, white matter consists of long-range myelinated axon tracts and contains relatively few cell bodies.

Why is all this explanation important?
Because this field or research is focused on changes in white matter. The higher the amounts of myelin, the faster information is transferred through the brain and with fewer losses. According to the article, it has previously been shown that older lifelong bilinguals, young early bilinguals, and adult early bilinguals demonstrate increased integrity, or thickness of the myelin, compared to monolinguals. In other words, a more efficient brain.

By means of this study, Pliatsikas wanted to find out if these effects are the same for so-called late-bilinguals; people who have learned their second language after the age of 10.

With an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, using the movement of water molecules in the brain as an indicator for white matter integrity, the two groups were scanned and compared. Freer movement of the water molecules would indicate less integrity.

The results are exciting!
Compared to monolingual adults of a similar age, the late-bilinguals in this study did indeed demonstrate greater white matter integrity in a number of regions of the brain related to language processing.

These results thus further support the idea that bilingualism “reshapes” the brain, but also quite possibly prove that bilingual immersion is a crucial factor in the process. Better preservation of brain structure reported in older bilinguals might simply be an effect of continuously using the two languages, rather than an effect of early language acquisition or lifelong bilingualism.

Still following? No?
Let me break it down for you: It doesn’t matter at which age you decide to learn a new language. But when you do, make sure to keep practicing. Your brain will thank you!

* For the full article on this study performed by Christos Pliatsikas (2015), visit the World Economic Forum.
** Other sources: Wikipedia
*** Photo credit: Memory of a Brain Malformation, a laser-etched lead crystal glass artwork by Katharine Dowson (2012).

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