By José Antonio Martinez Aviles

At the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, young recruits learn new languages at an incredibly fast pace. By measuring the brain activity of these recruits before and after the language training, a group of researchers has had a unique opportunity to observe what happens to the brain when we learn a new language in a short period of time.

In this academy, located in the city of Uppsala, young people with a flair for languages learn languages such as Arabic, Russian and Dari from scratch, becoming fluent in just over a year. From morning to night, day after day (without taking a break for weekends), recruits study at a very different pace from traditional language students.

The researchers used students of medicine and cognitive science as a control group at the University of Umeå – individuals who study very hard, but are not learning languages. Both groups received MRI scans before and after a period of three months of intensive study. While the cerebral structure of the control group remained unchanged, specific parts of the recruits’ brains that deal with verbal learning grew. The parts which increased in size were located in the hippocampus, a structure involved in learning new concepts and spatial navigation, located in three areas of the cerebral cortex.
“We were surprised that different parts of the brain developed to different degrees depending on how well the students performed and how much effort they had had to put in to keep up with the course,” says Johan Mårtensson, psychology researcher at Lund University.

Students with higher levels of growth in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, related to verbal learning (superior temporal gyrus), were more at ease with languages than other students. In students who put more effort into learning on the course, the highest growth was recorded in an area of the motor region of the cerebral cortex (middle frontal gyrus). The brain areas in which changes were reported show how easy it is to learn a language, its development varies according to their performance.

Previous research has indicated that Alzheimer’s disease has a later onset in bilingual or multilingual groups. “Even if we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape,” concludes Mårtensson.

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