This finding came from scientists at Lund University, after examining young recruits with a talent for acquiring languages who were able to speak in Arabic, Russian, or Dari fluently after just 13 months of learning, before which they had no knowledge of the languages.
These individuals, at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy in Uppsala, were educated at an extremely fast pace, from morning to night, seven days a week.
Medicine and cognitive science students at Umea University were used as a control group in the study. These scholars are hard workers, but do not study languages. All participants were given MRI scans before and after a period of strenuous studying for three months.
After analyzing the results, the scientists saw no difference in the brain structure of the control group. However, in the language group, certain parts of the brain had grown, including the hippocampus, responsible for learning new information, and three areas in the cerebral cortex.
Learning a new language may be a great way to keep your brain in shape.
"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."
The subjects who were more skilled, in terms of understanding new languages, saw a greater growth in the hippocampus and the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in language learning, such as the superior temporal gyrus.
The middle frontal gyrus, an area of the motor region of the cerebral cortex, grew in the participants who needed to exert themselves more in order to learn.
According to the team, the parts of the brain that experienced growth are associated with how simple it is for an individual to learn a language. They also pointed out that development differs in relation to performance.
There have been prior studies suggesting that bilingual and multilingual groups experience a later onset of Alzherimer's disease. One particular study from 2011 provided evidence that Alzheimer's was delayed 5 years for bilingual patients, compared to monolingual patients.
According to that report, if an individual is not bilingual, or cannot easily learn a second language, there are other things he/she can do to exercise the brain in the same way. For example, playing word searchers and puzzles will also trigger cognitive thinking.
"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."