How learning a new language changes the brain

If you’re multilingual, your brain may look a little different from someone who is monolingual. According to a study from Sweden, young adults who studied a foreign language intensively for three months showed several physical transformations in their brains. It turns out that learning a new language changes the brain! Let’s take a look at the interesting effects on the brain that come from speaking a second language.

learning a language cognition

Language learning changes the brain

The study found several structural changes in the brain after 3 months of intensive language learning. One of these was an increase in the volume of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a complex section deep inside the brain, mainly in charge of cognitive functions relating to memory and learning. As we age, the hippocampus can shrink. This can contribute to impaired memory and a higher risk of developing dementia. Activities that exercise our cognition can contribute to hippocampus growth, which may prevent these risks. This is one reason why learning a new language is great for our brains!

The study also found language learning contributed to increased cortical thickness. This means that the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, increased in volume. Studies generally indicate that there is a strong association between cortical thickness and general intelligence.

These changes in the brain are very subtle. However, they’re exciting to know about! They show that learning a new language may contribute to better brain health and even higher intelligence.

The many benefits of language learning

Other studies have found numerous benefits of language learning, some of which may be surprising!

Communication skills

Practicing a new language may lead to improved communication skills. This is particularly true if you practice the language with other people and if you have conversations with native speakers of the language. There is research showing that language learning builds empathy. Learning to effectively communicate with someone from another cultural background requires the ability to try seeing the world through their lens. This is great practice for becoming a better communicator.

Attention skills

Studies show that knowing more than one language can lead to stronger sustained attention skills. One study had participants take an attention test when they were 11 years old and then retested again when they were in their 70s. Bilingual participants performed significantly better. This may be because these individuals often have an increase of hippocampus volume because they are bilingual.  


Being multilingual can also improve memory. A study concerning episodic memory (the ability to remember events) found that participants who knew more than one language were all able to recall events more clearly. Within the group of bilingual participants, those who had known a second language for longer performed even better than those who had known a second language for a shorter time.


Knowing a second language can even provide a boost in creativity! Learning a new language requires mental flexibility, the ability to adapt, and empathy. These can lead to an improved sense of creativity and problem-solving skills.

Executive function

The previously mentioned skills go hand in hand with executive functions. Increasing our mental flexibility and problem-solving skills can positively impact executive function skills. Our cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills affect our ability to plan, make decisions, and reduce impulsive behaviors.


The numerous benefits to the brain don’t necessarily last forever – the brain can change in many ways as we go through our lives. But these benefits can be better maintained through regular practice. So if you’re learning a new language, keep it up!

The skills that language learning can help with all play critical roles in our lives. It’s easy to see how becoming multilingual can positively impact our cognitive abilities. Improving these abilities can ultimately lead to stronger relationships, a personal sense of competence, and increased confidence. The benefits are far-reaching. So, if you want to strengthen your cognition, why not try a new language?

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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