How Being Bilingual Affects the Development of Your Brain
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is made up of about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. Each neuron is connected to anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 other neurons. This means that the brain is literally wired together in a huge neural network.
To help figure out how your brain is affected by being bilingual, it helps to understand how the brain learns. When you learn something new, your brain creates physical changes that become embedded in your memory. These changes are what we call neuronal synapses. Neuronal synapses are the tiny connections between neurons that allow them to communicate with each other and, we suspect, form memories.
Neurons communicate with each other via what are called "synapses." There are two types of synapses:
- Excitatory. An excitatory synapse is one that helps your neuron get excited and thus produces more neurotransmitters.
- Inhibitory. An inhibitory synapse is one that suppresses your neuron and thus reduces the amount of neurotransmitters it produces.
The brain has a delicate balancing act to keep everything in proper harmony. If there are too many neurons that are over-excited, the brain will create an environment where these neurons become desensitized and thus cannot produce as many neurotransmitters.
One of the ways your brain retains information is by creating what are called "neurotransmitters." These neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released by one neuron to another neuron.
For example, when you learn something new, a neuron in your brain is stimulated. It starts to produce a certain type of neurotransmitter which then travels to other neurons. When these other neurons receive the neurotransmitter, they also get stimulated and start producing their own neurotransmitters.
This creates a chain reaction which results in an even larger amount of neurotransmitters being produced. This creates a positive feedback loop which makes your brain feel great and produces a chemical change in your brain that becomes embedded in your memory. This is how you learn something new and then later on, you can easily recall what you learned.
Your brain needs exercise too!
We used to think the brain stopped developing in a person’s teenage years, but it’s been shown that your brain doesn't stop developing until well into your 20s. So, what’s been learned throughout adolescence will impact your final brain development.
The more languages you know, the better your brain functions when it comes to multitasking, problem solving, and even learning new languages. Studies have shown bilinguals have an edge over monolinguals in spatial awareness, pattern recognition, and memory. Bilinguals also tend to be more flexible and innovative than monolinguals.
Your brain needs exercise just like your body does. It needs to be challenged often. This helps your brain stay sharp. If your brain is not challenged, it can atrophy and this can have a negative effect on your health.
Observational studies have found that cognitive training through brain exercise can actually slow down the mental deterioration associated with aging and reduce the risk of developing dementia. When you learn something new, your brain has to work really hard to get the memory of that information embedded in your brain. Therefore, you should keep on learning new things to train your brain.
Being bilingual affects how your brain develops, and it pays off! So, if you want to succeed at the highest levels, learning another language might give you a significant advantage. Bilingualism has been shown to improve your short term memory, concentration, and ability to solve problems.
It’s not too late! Learning another language as an adult still has benefits and exercises your brain. The task of switching between languages involves your brain and trains your mind. Here are some tips on how to get started.
Tip 1: Find a good tutor
Tutoring is the best way to learn a language. Find a good private tutor (expensive) or a good class (inexpensive). Classes can range from $20 to $100 or more per month.
Tip 2: Listen to audio tapes and read books in the language
This will help you memorize vocabulary and grammar patterns. You'll find many audio tapes and books in the library at your local college. Just look in the language section of the book store.
Tip 3: Watch TV and listen to radio in the language
Watching shows and listening to the language will help you improve your listening skills. Plus, you'll get a feel for the rhythm of the language.
Tip 4: Use a computer
If you have access to one, use it! Type a few words in the dictionary and translator apps. There are also language learning apps that can help you learn the vocabulary and improve your grasp of the language.
Tip 5: Join a language club
There are many online. You'll meet people from all over the world who want to learn your language or the language you’re trying to learn.
Tip 6: Study abroad
This is the best way to become immersed in a language. It can be expensive, but it'll be money well spent.
Tip 7: Make friends with people who speak the language
This will help you learn the language faster and better.
Learning a second language is hard
The hardest part of learning a second language is not actually speaking or writing—it's memorizing. Memorizing what you've heard and read. Memorizing the grammar. Memorizing the structure. Memorizing the vocabulary. You’ll encounter words that have no direct translation in your native language and perplexing figures of speech like idioms and unfamiliar metaphors.
These likely won’t be intuitive so the only way to learn them will be to commit them to memory with repetition and determination. But with a little bit of time, consistent effort, and practice, you can become bilingual!