Study: Learning a new language boosts our ability to pick up more

While learning another language can be an incredibly difficult undertaking, it’s easier for some than others. In fact, a recent study shows that the more languages you can speak, the easier it is for you to pick up another one — with the results providing some of the first neurological evidence that language skills are additive.

Coming from researchers at the University of Tokyo, the new study measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual participants as they attempted to decipher words and sentences written and spoken in Kazakh — a language none of the study subjects spoke.

As part of the study, the volunteers, who were all Japanese speakers, listened to recordings of native speakers talking in Kazakh, along with visual indicators showing whether the sentences were grammatically correct or not. The ultimate idea was to observe whether, after a number of sessions, participants would eventually grasp the intricacies of the Kazakh language.

The findings showed that the more languages one knew, the smaller the number of learning sessions one needed to learn Kazakh. On top of needing fewer rounds to learn efficiently, multilingual subjects also answered more quickly on tests.

“For multilingual, in Kazakh, the pattern of brain activation is similar to that for bilinguals, but the activation is much more sensitive and much faster,” said co-author Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai.

What’s also worth noting is that neurological readings between the two study groups also varied. Bilinguals showed activity in both the right and left side of the brain, while multilinguals only used their left side, meaning that they exerted less energy during the learning process.

The study also found that participants speaking three or more languages displayed unique basal ganglia activity, suggesting that multilinguals may have better deductive skills and abilities to build on earlier knowledge.

This research can be valuable in how we approach language learning and shows that teaching children a second language early in life can help them pick up others more easily, even as adults.

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