It used to be thought that neuroplasticity went away at a certain age, however recent research is showing us that our brains change and grow well into the golden years. Being bilingual facilitates this! (Surprise!)
Neuroplasticity is also known as brain plasticity. It refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses. These changes are due to changes in behavior, neural processes, environment, and bodily injury. Our brains can reorganize themselves and create new circuits as we go through life and our circumstances change. So what does this have to do with being bilingual? Well, there is no better workout for the brain than learning a new language.
The common opinion use to be that the brain is a physiologically static organ, that it can’t change physically. That formerly held notion is now being challenged. The brain changes constantly, and recent research is showing that it continues to change throughout the course of our life; well into a persons 60′s or 70′s. Stem cells in our brains can grow neurons at any age!
Neuroplasticity has several key principles:
The brain operates exactly as a muscle in your arm would. When you struggle with something mental, like learning a new language or a very hard math problem, you are working that muscle. The more that muscle is worked, the more fine-tuned it becomes. Are you following me? Mental stress and fatigue is not fun for anyone, just as going to the gym isn’t fun, but the benefits are proven. One of the benefits of being bilingual is that dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are slowed in multilingual adults vs their monolingual counterparts.
Being bilingual is a forced way to exercise your mental strength: neuroplasticity. It forces your mind to create new synapses, reorganize, restructure itself, and constantly switch back and forth. The different grammar systems, vocabulary, and many other aspects of using two or more languages regularly force the brain to work in overdrive. This is a good thing!
Bilingual children, or children going through bilingual education such as language immersion programs, are given this opportunity at a young age to help develop their neuroplasticity! Being bilingual is like constantly working out at the gym for your brain!
Can being bilingual increase your brain’s neuroplasticity? Of course! What does this mean on a practical level? It means that your brain’s muscles will be stronger, which will help increase your abilities in the other areas mentioned above.
Like any other muscle, this doesn’t happen overnight! Other things we can do to help rustle up some neuroplasticity are things like mental math, memory tricks/games, lots of reading, playing creatively, and basically anything else you can think of that tires you out. The next time you are mentally exhausted just say to yourself, “Man, I just had a great neuroplastic workout!” That should make everything better…
One last thing to remember: Our brains only grow through being moderately stressed. That is the sweet spot. If we are doing our regular, routine, mundane tasks around the house or at work our brain is getting no workout. If we are having a panic attach, our brains are also not getting properly worked out. The sweet zone is like the fat burning zone in exercise… right in the middle. Enough work so we know we’re at the gym, but not so much we can’t breathe (think anaerobic vs aerobic).
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Jeffrey Nelson via LivingBilingual.com
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