Language shapes the way we think. Whether we’re listening to a persuasive speaker, absorbed in powerful writing, or engaged in a conversation, language can introduce us to new ideas, perspectives, and opportunities.
But at a more fundamental level, language might physically alter your mind. Bilinguals, for example, have denser gray matter in their language centers than monolinguals. Bilinguals can more easily focus on two tasks at once. They think more analytically. Parts of their brain devoted to memory, reasoning, and planning are larger than those of monolinguals.
Learning a second language is like a workout for your mind. The benefits of bilingualism, from increased creativity to the delayed onset of Alzheimer’s, should encourage everyone to pick up a second – or third! – language.
Let’s follow the path of language through your head as you hear, comprehend, and create words and phrases, and then pinpoint how language can shape the brain and what benefits it bestows. Here is your brain on language.
Speech in the brain
While our brains make sense of words instantaneously, the process of transforming sounds into meaning and then formulating a response winds through several areas of the brain. When your ear turns sound waves into neural impulses, those impulses trigger reactions from four major regions of the brain devoted to language comprehension and production: The auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the motor cortex.
The auditory cortex: The sounds funneled into your ear are converted to neural impulses and make their first stop in the auditory cortex, located on both sides of the brain. This region lets your brain know where the sound came from and when, then relays that information to the more specialized areas of the brain.
Wernicke’s area: After passing through the auditory cortex, neural sound information moves to Wernicke’s area, located in the left hemisphere of the brain. This area turns the impulses into recognizable words and phrases, and thus meaningful communication.
Broca’s area: Also located in the left hemisphere, Broca’s area is concerned with language production and motor planning. Simply put, once your brain has interpreted the language and its meaning, Broca’s area is where your response is formulated.
Motor cortex: The final brain location associated with language processing is the motor cortex, which helps plan, control, and execute voluntary movements. This region controls the movement of your mouth and lips as they form words. After other areas of the brain handle word conceptualization and phrase formulation, the motor cortex assists articulation as your vocal tracts produce the sounds we recognize as language.
How language shapes the brain
From the moment sound waves enter your ear and become neural impulses, your brain executes this rapid-fire series of events that few of us are ever aware of, but without which we’d be unable to communicate.
For bilingual speakers, this process involves both languages — from the first syllable they hear, their brain is working to identify the word, and the listener’s brain begins identifying any words, in either language, that could fit the sounds as they arrive in sequence. Having to distinguish between two languages can be tricky in some situations, but the brain’s executive functions, especially the attention and inhibition processes, are strengthened through this process, ultimately making bilingual speakers better at switching between two tasks or handling tasks that require conflict management.
How language shapes your brain depends in part on when you learn another language. For example, Broca’s area differs between young language learners and older language learners. If a child grows up bilingual, the same region in Broca’s area handles the processing of both languages. However, if you learn a language after adolescence, a separate area develops for the second language near the area used for your native tongue. Despite the difference in brain structure, language learners both old and young gain the benefits of speaking multiple languages.
Because the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain’s natural ability to focus, entertain multiple possibilities, and process information.
Just as you exercise your body to keep your heart healthy and muscles strong, exercising your mind can sharpen your decision-making and improve your communication skills. So if you only speak one language or haven’t spoken your second language since high school, now’s the time to get learning.