Moreover, the main regions that were found to be used most during language translation for late learners fell outside of the classical language areas. The anterior cingulate and bilateral subcortical structures that are known as our brain’s gear shifter lit up, leading researchers to believe that we adopt and need greater coordination when speaking a non-maternal language. These structures of the brain are what helps us while learning because they are involved in carrying out tasks, error detection and cognitive flexibility found in problem solving and grasping new information. The evidence of changes in neural activity by use of different parts of the brain between two languages is shown to be driven by fluency: The more fluent a speaker is in the second language, the more obvious the overlap in Broca’s area can be seen (the same area that we house our maternal language).

Other studies have shown that when bilinguals are rapidly converting back and forth between their two languages (also known as Bilingual Mode), they show significantly more activity in the right hemisphere than monolingual speakers. This is especially true in the frontal area of the brain, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The DFC is important in working memory and executive function, including the regulation of thinking and action. It is theorized that this area of the cortex serves to attenuate interference that results from having to actively enhance and suppress two languages in alternation. Finally, these findings support the notion that switching between languages involves increased general executive processing.

As the case may prove, those lucky enough to learn a second language during childhood use the same areas of their brains and perhaps it’s that speaking the second language is just as natural as their first. For us late bloomers, it’s not so simple. It takes a bit more effort, a moment more to process and a few other areas of the cortex to untangle the knots of translation. The good news is that our brains are capable of molding, of plasticity. For a long time, it was believed that we reached a certain age and came to a halt; that our brain networks became fixed. It has now been proven that through learning and experience, through acting and reacting, our brains continue to change, continue to adjust and actually make a shift in physical anatomy. It means a change in the internal structure of neurons. It means new connections through neurons can be formed. It means an increase in the number of firing synapses between neurons. It means there’s hope.

The Advantages of Being Bilingual

Could this lead science to greater insight on how to prevent or delay dementia? Should the public be enrolling in local language courses? This neuroplasticity has been evidentially observed in the brains of bilinguals and shows functional changes in the brain, as the left inferior parietal cortex (which processes our communication skills) becomes larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains. The neurobiology of bilingualism has also found that being fluent in two languages, particularly from early childhood, not only enhances a person’s ability to concentrate but enhances working memory and might also protect against the onset of dementia or other age-related cognitive decline by keeping minds sharp. So don’t give up quite yet. Some theorize that speaking two languages may increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain and keep nerve connections healthy, all which are facts thought to ward off dementia. Just as we exercise for our bodies, it’s beneficial to put our minds to work with cognitive exercise.

Bilingual adults also have denser gray matter, which is the brain tissue packed with information-processing nerve cell and fibers. Their denser gray matter is also more frequent in the brain’s left hemisphere where the language and communication skills are controlled. Stimulating the brain through learning exercises can have a great impact on brain health thanks to the new findings regarding neuroplasticity. The changes that occur in the cortex through stimulation can contribute to an increase in what is referred to as our brain reserve. The more brain reserve, the more resistant the brain is to age-related or disease-related damages.

The Future of Being Bilingual

The research regarding language and brain processing is an ongoing study as scientists try to organize the intricacies of the mind. Knowing more about how the brain processes languages and bilingualism can lead to a better understanding of how the brain organizes speech and communication tasks. It holds promise for treating patients and understanding speech after a brain injury such as stroke or concussion, and targeting the correct areas during brain surgery. The science of bilingualism can pioneer the way into more focused and effective therapies for helping individuals recover their communication skills.

Furthermore, with globalization increasing, more people in need of learning second languages, and more children being raised in bilingual households, the world is finding a greater need for bilingualism. As technology continues to progress and we continue to learn more about the inner workings of the brain, techniques for learning and teaching could be enhanced in the school system.

As for me, ten months down and I’ve found that my brain is adapting much better. Comprehension comes easier, conversation is achievable and I’ve finally found the courage to leave the apartment without my French/English dictionary. Plus, with the advancements and information about language acquisition, maybe a third language could one day be an option! But for now, one thing at a time. C’est la vie.