Learning a new language as an adult can be a challenging task. However, while it is generally easier for children to learn new skills, the brain retains some of its learning capacity even with age. This remarkable ability of the brain to adapt and acquire new skills is known as neuroplasticity. Scientists have discovered that the adult brain can form new neural connections and change when acquiring a new skill. For instance, a recent study by a team of researchers in Germany provides evidence of the brain’s remarkable ability to change when acquiring a new language in adulthood.

The study involved a group of 59 native adult Arabic speakers who were studying German as a second language. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was used to track structural changes in the brain during the language learning process. The MRI scans were taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the learning phase, using tractography—a technique for visualizing nerve tracts in the brain from MRI scans. Changes in brain structure and nerve tracts indicate neuroplasticity. The results showed that as language learning progressed, stronger connections were formed in the language skill regions on both sides of the brain, while the connections between them decreased. This suggests that the left hemisphere, where most language centers are located, loses some control over the right hemisphere to compensate for the increased networks required during the later stages of language learning. Therefore, it can be concluded that the process of learning German was demanding enough to create major alterations in brain circuitry. 

Overall, the study shed light on the complex processes involved in learning a second language and the incredible adaptability of the adult brain, allowing us to hypothesize that the brain has a great capacity for learning and adaptation in a variety of other skills during adulthood. The takeaway message, therefore, is that it’s never too late to learn something new, and your brain can adapt to your efforts and desires.

This study was led by Xuehu Wei, an external guest researcher in the research team of Alfred Anwander and Angela Friederici at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

Managing Correspondent: Marwa Osman

Original journal article: White matter plasticity during second language learning within and across hemispheres (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Press article: Learning a second language is transforming the brain (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

Image Credit: Growtika on Unsplash

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