The more languages you speak, the easier it is for the brain to learn more

TOKYO, Japan — For those of us confined to knowing just one language, learning an additional dialect can feel impossible. Many bilinguals, however, marvel at the language skills of multilinguals (individuals fluent in three or more languages). Interestingly, a new Japanese study reports the collection of ground-breaking neurological evidence indicating lingual skills are additive. In other words, the more languages you speak, the easier it will be to learn another.

These findings potentially explain why one person fluent in English and Spanish may be in awe of someone who can speak German, Russian, and English. Meanwhile, that trilingual individual can’t believe it when he or she meets someone else who can speak German, Italian, French, English, and Russian.

“The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” says study co-author Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo in a release.

Researchers measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual study participants as each person attempted to decipher words and sentences written and spoken in Kazakh — a language no participant was familiar with at all. All subjects were native Japanese speakers, with most also being fluent in English. Some of the multilingual participants could speak up to five languages including Chinese, Russian, Korean, and German.

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Participants heard recordings of native speakers talking in Kazakh, along with visual indicators showing whether or not the sentence was grammatically correct. Over time, and multiple recordings, researchers hoped participants would eventually pick up on the intricacies of Kazakh speech and grammar.

Sure enough, the more languages an individual knew well, the faster they learned Kazakh. This held true across the board, multilingual subjects needed fewer rounds to learn efficiently, and also chose answers faster.

“For multilinguals, in Kazakh, the pattern of brain activation is similar to that for bilinguals, but the activation is much more sensitive, and much faster,” Sakai explains.

Neurological readings between bilinguals and multilinguals also differed. Bilinguals showed activation within both the right and left sides of their brains, while multilinguals only used their left side. This suggests bilinguals had to expend more mental energy.

Multilinguals also displayed unique basal ganglia activity. These readings, study authors say, suggest multilinguals are better equipped to make generalizations and build on earlier knowledge.

“This is a neuro-scientific explanation of why learning another new language is easier than acquiring a second. Bilinguals only have two points of reference. Multilinguals can use their knowledge of three or more languages in their brains to learn another new one,” Sakai concludes.

The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

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