Take Your Brain to Quarantine Gym: Learn a Language in Lockdown

language learning

Being bilingual makes our brains bigger. Multilingualism enriches our minds like multi-vitamins. Language and speech centers are well-mapped, centered predominantly in the left hemisphere. But learning new languages lights up the entire brain, left and right, as well as the corpus callosum in between. Language learning increases both white matter and grey matter and combats the effects of aging. Overall, learning a new language contributes to neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain and its structures to adapt and grow. And what better time than now, when we’re all stuck at home? Online translation and online courses help us learn a language as we are locked down.

Many language functions are easier to acquire in childhood, but it turns out that later acquisition of additional languages is akin to exercise. We think better, our judgment gets stronger, our brains become more agile. Studies even suggest that bilingualism and multilingualism delay dementia substantially. So there are some very good reasons to learn a language or strengthen the linguistic skills you already have. But these days we are limited, but also empowered, by the necessity of learning online.

Learning Multiple Language and its Effect on the Brain

Before you consider learning a new language, you may want to answer a simple question: which language do you really want to learn? Some people make the decision according to emotions, without really knowing why. They may want to choose a language that is sexually arousing or leads to fortuitous social and romantic ties. They might be interested in the result of studies about which is the sexiest language alive. On a related topic, your language choice and aptitude may be related to gender differences in brain characteristics. If learning is for business, on the other hand, wannabe learners may want to become fluent in the most popular languages spoken.

Whatever your choice, it’s important to bear in mind that there are quite different processes in the brain for one’s first language and those which follow. There is also the ponderous question about how language learning differs for those who are deaf or mute. There is also the intriguing challenge of how learning sign language differs from learning a verbal language. And then there is the intriguing question as to how we perceive and interpret body language. But here, to narrow the subject so that it is more manageable, we will focus on the learning of a second language: let’s say adding Spanish to our native English, which we will assume is our mother tongue.

Most language processing takes place in the cerebral cortex. It is generally agreed that the primary areas of the brain concerned with linguistic processes are Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe, which takes care of producing and articulating speech, and Wernicke’s area, located in the left temporal lobe, associated with the language development and comprehension.

For most people, language learning starts in the ears. Our auditory cortex receives electric signals that come through, with neurons extracting data from the signal and analyzing them. These signals, after analysis, are classified into words and topics, which are then stored in temporo-frontal networks in the brain’s left hemisphere. The right side is primarily responsible for analyzing sentences. For native speakers, the superior temporal gyrus is what retrieves words and builds sentences. For non-native speakers, this region is much less active. And it is this which largely accounts for the difficulty of learning a second language compared to the first. However, if unfamiliar words are repeated enough, they eventually get stored in that long-term storage area. The older you are, in general, the more difficult and time-consuming is that process.

Learning Language via Online Courses

Typically, those who wish to learn a second language take one of the following paths: they go to a foreign country where that language is spoken and supplement that immersion with in-person classes. Unfortunately, these days, that course is less practical. Another, more informal way, is learning from a friend or lover. This may work overtime, but the results are likely to be more haphazard. Taking an online course, as noted above, has become the go-to method, although there is considerable variability in the methods such programs employ: individual learning with software, individual or group learning with an online tutor or teacher, often via video conferences.

It may be harder to learn a second language than a first one, but online courses make it doable, and optimizable, facts that have spurred the growth in language courses to learn every tongue under the sun, many of which have by now moved online. Research shows that online language learning industry is growing by nearly 18% annually and is expected to increase by $18 billion between 2018 and 2023. The three biggest growth areas are in what might be considered the “most useful languages”:

  • Chinese and other Asian students learning English
  • Westerners learning Mandarin Chinese
  • Americans and Brazilians learning Spanish

Leading Programs for Online Language Learning

There are, however, more than 100 languages that can be learned online, but a small collection of online language learning programs. According to G2, the top providers of multilingual software are:

  • Duolingo
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Mango Languages
  • Memrise
  • Voxy
  • Babbel for Business

Whichever you choose, the good programs tune their programs to suit the way the “average brain” absorbs and remembers language. But understanding the “bilingual brain” is a complex and fascinating topic which itself has spawned online courses.

But let’s summarize some of the main principles and best practices as they impact on the brain.

  • Listening and vocalization are the two keys to learning new languages
  • First language acquisition is a largely passive process, while second language learning is an active one.
  • The shape and size of the auditory cortex is a key predictor of phonetic learning capacity
    connections between specific parietal regions and the auditory cortex are key to informing us about speech sound capability
  • It is the inferior frontal gyrus, not the superior temporal gyrus, that plays a decisive role in learning a second language

These findings provide a scientific basis for what language learners, and teachers, find on their own: some people are naturally gifted, by their brain structure, in learning additional languages, while others will have a much tougher time at it. Still, the evidence suggests that learning a second, third or fourth language is doable by most people of normal or higher intelligence: it just takes much more time and effort by some than others.

Learning Languages via Online Translation Services

Another learning method gaining popularity seems at first haphazard: gaining knowledge of a new language via online translation software or services. The big advantage of the software is that they are available online — on any smartphone, tablet or computing device – and they’re totally free. They are also under the complete control of learners, who can decide what they want to say or write at any given moment.

Let’s see how it works. We go to an online translation apps: Google Translate and Microsoft Translator lead the pack. Decide what you want to learn, and say it or write it in your first language, then receive a translation in the new language, both in text and invoice. The advantage of this method is that it delivers instant gratification, overcoming mental barriers to second-language learning: the difficulty of following a structured course. In brain terms, it exercises your inferior frontal gyrus but won’t exhaust it.

A slightly more formal, though significantly more expensive approach, is to engage the language services an online translation company. Their companies are set up for business translation but they are unlikely, especially these days, to turn away this more unconventional use of their language translator services, which often cover dozens if not scores of languages, using a worldwide network of experts mother-tongue linguists. They can hook you up with a speaker of a language of your choice, providing the supervision and quality assurance of a private tutoring session on your terms. The drawback: it may be easier on your brain, but it will cost an arm and a leg.

A less expensive source of human translation expertise can be found in freelance marketplaces like Upwork and Freelancer.com. There you can find a future language tutor in the tongue of your choice. Just search, in our case, for “Spanish Translator” and vet candidate who can translate Spanish to English as well as English to Spanish so the conversation goes fluently. Make sure to check ratings, reviews, and rates, but you will be please to find that freelancers tend to cost a fraction of certified translation agencies.

How to Gain the “Most Bang for Your Brain” in a Time of Coronavirus

In these days of lockdown and quarantine, learning a new language can be a great way to be pleasant productive in your downtime, and the methods above can also give you much needed human contact, albeit from a safe distance. There are many great hacks for language learning. A few tips to lick that new tongue and tickle your still-young brain:

  1. Set a Time: Whether 30, 60 or 90 minutes, schedule your language learning!
  2. Find a Partner: Someone you like who speaks the language you want to learn!
  3. Fluency Over Accuracy: Talk when you are unsure, listen even when it’s unclear!
  4. To Err is Human: We learn most by our mistakes, the slips of our new tongue!

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