Language is considered an ‘executive’ function in the brain. The complex use of language is what distinguishes the human brain from primates and other animals. From an evolutionary perspective, the development of these regions of the brain is relatively new. The prefrontal cortex–which is responsible for more advanced processing–is the region of the brain that is most altered by learning to express oneself in a new language.
According to studies, at the age of about 25, the brain begins to show signs of to decline and deterioration; especially in terms of working memory, efficiency, processing and speed. There is a strong relationship between age and decline of brain function. Continuing to learn new skills invigorates brain function and makes that decline less steep.
The four foreign languages I learnt as an adult were: Hebrew, Spanish, French and Japanese–in that order. Hebrew was the first. It is a language that could be described as one that underwent a renaissance. Hebrew was mainly restricted to religious use till it was revived for modern vernacular usage.
The second language I learnt was Spanish. According to statistics, Spanish is spoken by more than 559 million people globally. In the United States, 13 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home. It is the most common language spoken, after English.
French and Spanish come from the same language family; so if you know one, it is easier to pick up the other. 275 million people speak French, of which 76 million are native speakers. That’s close to 72 per cent who speak it was a second; as opposed to a first language.
If the languages are closely-related, like Spanish and French, there is a higher chance for confusion. Learners will naturally have a harder time distinguishing them–especially with regards to word usage and grammar. When languages are not related, then learners cannot rely on prior knowledge. In that case, learners will have to start from scratch. While that takes more effort in the initial learning stages, the impact and effects cannot be understated as they revitalise brain function and memory.
In addition to learning a new language, another way for adults to continue to keep their brains in top shape is to pick up a musical instrument. A Stanford study found that music engages areas of the brain which are involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating events in our memory.
Music is an experience that engages the whole-brain. Learning a musical instrument requires us to awaken a whole spectrum of skills. This places new and unique demands on the nervous system. Training on a musical instrument involves a long period of controlled attention and keeping musical compositions in working memory. The improvement of working memory has numerous benefits on our reasoning abilities.
Furthermore, music has the power to evoke strong emotions: including pleasure and pain. This allows adults to destress from everyday life. Musical experiences induce the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. These are the same chemicals associated with the pleasure people get from more tangible rewards such as food or addictive drugs.
To keep the brain evergreen, use it–or you will lose it. Learn a new language or a new skill–and keep practising it–be it through your voluminous voice or your hardworking hands.