Learning a foreign language is both a personally and professionally enriching undertaking. In addition to boosting your job prospects, growing your business, and enhancing your travel experiences, you can add improving your health to the list of benefits associated with language learning. Here are three major health benefits of learning a foreign language.
Stronger Memory and Delayed Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease
Learning another language is an incredible workout for the brain. Many of the health benefits of learning a foreign language have to do with the cognitive exercise inherent in processing and switching between two (or more) distinct languages.
The repetitive exercise involved in memorizing vocabulary and structures can actually make the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory — larger. This strengthens the brain mechanisms that facilitate long term memory. Stronger memory is one of the most powerful health benefits of learning a foreign language: children who are raised bilingual regularly perform better than monolingual children on advanced memory tasks, and studies have shown that adults who speak multiple languages (regardless of the age at which they begin learning another language) are better at recalling names, directions, and shopping lists by memory.
Research has also shown that dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other medical issues stemming from disrupted memory function can be delayed by learning another language. A 2013 study that examined 700 people with dementia, about half of whom were bilingual, showed that the symptoms of dementia appeared 4.5 years later on average in bilingual participants as opposed to those who spoke only one language.
Interestingly, the findings have also shown that speaking two or more languages can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s even in someone who is illiterate.
Faster Stroke Recovery
Each year, over 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke, making it one of the leading causes of death and disability in the country. But research has shown a link between bilingualism and the recovery of cognitive capacity following a stroke.
The reasoning behind these findings is a phenomenon known as cognitive reserve, by which brains that have built up strong neural networks are better equipped to bounce back when damage has occurred. The cognitive processes involved in language learning make it one method of building a stronger, more active, and more interconnected brain that is better able to recover from the trauma of a stroke.
Recently, research conducted in India indicated that over 40 percent of study participants who were bilingual recovered full cognitive functions following a stroke.
Delayed Aging Process
Additional health benefits of learning a foreign language are seen in the brain’s aging process. Speaking multiple languages makes the brain more flexible and may increase the amount of grey matter, which impacts higher-level thinking, analyzing, making connections, and synthesizing information. This supports research that bilingualism improves brain functioning and slows the aging process.
In fact, a study that tasked senior citizens with completing a series of cognitive activities showed that bilingual seniors exhibited stronger neural ability than the elderly individuals who spoke only one language. What’s more, the bilingual group was able to complete the cognitive tasks while exerting less energy in the frontal region of the brain than their monolingual counterparts. This research further enforces the lifelong health benefits to learning a foreign language.