Does learning a language affect the structure of your brain?

Have you ever wondered how we learn a language and learn how to read? And in learning language and reading skills, does the structure of your brain change? Does your brain stop growing at a certain age? These questions prompt my exploration of the impact of cognitive neuroscience on language learning.

Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not stop growing at a certain age. However, growth is dependent on the continuity of learning, such as learning a new language or improving the level of one’s mother tongue.

Learning to read is a complex process that encourages the brain to build synapses that connect to nerve cells. A nerve cell can create approximately 10,000 synapses with other cells. This property makes the brain structure changeable as long as a person learns. This characteristic is linked to the concept of flexibility, called neuroplasticity.


Brain cells talk to each other in two main ways: they use electric signals, mostly in the eyes and heart, and chemicals like adrenaline and other substances. If there’s too much or too little of these chemicals, it can affect how our body and mind work. Things like caffeine can make these cell talks less effective, but painkillers can make them more active. So, it’s really important for students to eat healthy foods and talk to doctors to make sure they’re eating right for their health.

What happens to the brain when a person learns a new language or develops reading processes in the mother tongue?

What happens to the brain when a person learns a new language or develops reading processes in the mother tongue? This learning process stimulates the exchange of information between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. When this happens, the white matter and nerve fibers increase, leading to improved mental efficiency. This improvement is not limited to language related functions but also extends to other cognitive functions.

Individuals who learn and speak more than one language tend to have a higher density of gray matter in their brains. This means that the brain works on understanding language, especially in a part called the left temporal lobe. This part helps us read words and turn them into pictures and sounds in our minds. To do this, the brain has to get information from different places inside it. It makes special connections, called neural synapses, to share messages quickly between these areas.

Making the gray part of your brain thicker can make the front part of your brain work better. This front part helps us with things like understanding what we see, making choices, and focusing. When you learn to read, it helps your brain get better at doing many things at once, remembering stuff, and figuring out problems, even if they’re not about words or language. To really change how your brain is built, we should use special ways that focus on the parts of the brain that help us read.

Reading is a unique way to shape and develop the brain’s structure. When you pick up a book to read, your brain automatically triggers a set of mental processes. It processes words and symbols that pass through the eyes, which requires the activation of different areas of the brain. The most important is the language centers, located in the left half of the brain.

Reading is a unique way to shape and develop the brain’s structure.


The right hemisphere is responsible for imagination and the construction of images and feelings. The more you read, the more effective your brain’s neural network becomes by building new synapses. This facilitates the transfer of information from long-term memory to processing centers, such as the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning and decision-making.

How Can Teachers Use This Knowledge in Their Classrooms?

As teachers, we must build confidence and motivation in our students to enhance their reading flexibility. When students feel that their teachers care about them and believe in their abilities, their academic performance improves. When students perceive their linguistic learning environment as a secure and supportive place, it triggers the secretion of endorphins in their brains, creating feelings of happiness, which stimulates the frontal lobe area. This, in turn, makes learning more enjoyable and successful and promotes motivation and eagerness to learn.

On the other hand, if students feel that their teacher does not value or care for them and that the language learning environment is not safe, their amygdala senses this and sends nerve signals to the adrenal gland to release cortisol and adrenaline hormones, which control the body’s stress response. As a result, their blood pressure and heart rate increase, and their motivation to learn decreases since their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode.

As teachers, we must build confidence and motivation in our students to enhance their reading flexibility.


Therefore, it’s important for teachers to provide a positive and supportive environment when teaching reading skills. This involves providing diverse learning opportunities for students, such as direct teaching, trial and error, and exploring reading content. Students’ brain neural networks become more efficient by trying different approaches before arriving at the correct answer or solution to an intractable problem. It’s also essential to follow the learning method of repetition, which means practicing the newly acquired reading skill enough times to master it.

To help your students improve their reading skills, teachers can introduce the von Restorff effect, also known as the “isolation effect.” This effect states that the brain remembers and recalls information that is different or distinct from the other information presented. Researchers discovered that when participants were given a list of similar words to remember, including one that stood out, they were more likely to remember the distinct word compared to the other words. When presented with a group of items or information, the brain will naturally gravitate towards the one thing that is different or unique. For example, in a picture of a group of children wearing green shirts with only one child wearing a red shirt, the brain automatically focuses on the child wearing the red shirt.

For example, when employing the Restorf effect in teaching reading, teachers can guide students to shade text while reading so as to use visual cues to enact memory retrieval.

Language learning in the classroom is not only an educational learning process but also an experience with multiple dimensions, including social and personal interactions, shaping students’ lives, and developing their brain structure, which enhances their abilities to adapt and develop skills.



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[1] Tu L, Zhou F, Omata K, Li W, Huang R, Gao W, Zhu Z, Li Y, Liu C, Mao M, Zhang S and Hanakawa T (2022) Increased Gray Matter Volume Induced by Chinese Language Acquisition in Adult Alphabetic Language Speakers. Front. Psychol. 13:824219. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.824219

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. The second Edition has been revised and updated. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2005. Print.

Dr. Ibrahem Alamoush has over 20 years’ experience in education. Previously to SEA, Dr. Alamoush served as Educational Training Specialist in the Emirates Schools Establishment. He has also served as lecturer and adjunct faculty at various institutions in the UAE, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia: at Skyline University College Sharjah, the Queen Rania Teachers Academy, Al-Albayet University, King Saud University, among others.

In his various roles, Dr. Alamoush has provided expertise on learning strategies, assessment and evaluation, and cognitive neuroscience for teachers. Research interests include: learning and teaching strategies, Arabic language education, cognitive neuroscience and its impact on reading comprehension.

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