Learning a foreign language opens us up to new experiences, work opportunities, and allows us to meet people we may never have otherwise. More than that, research has shown learning a language can also physically change brain structure and adjust perception.
When we learn a language, we create new neural pathways in our brain, which can lead to noticeable changes. The left hemisphere is generally believed to be the logical part of the brain and is where many of our language skills originate. However, a 2012 Swiss study observed that learning a foreign language later in life is associated with thickening of the cerebral cortex — a layer of neurons specifically responsible for memory, thought, consciousness and, of course, language. This increased thickness can lead to better memory and sharper thinking later in life.
Learning a new language doesn’t just change the physical makeup of the brain. Based on a theory known as linguistic relativity, learning a new language can also change the way we see the world. This is specifically true in relation to our color perception. For example, Japanese speakers have far more words to describe the color blue, and as a result are generally able to see more shades of blue than English speakers. On the other side of the spectrum, the Himba tribe of Namibia in Southern Africa have only five words to describe all the colors in the world. Researchers have observed that, without a word for the color blue, the Himba struggle to tell it apart from green — an easy feat for English speakers.