Could Cognitive Stimulation Help You Learn a New Language?

The cognitive functions trained by CogniFit’s brain training tools—including Focus, Naming, Short-term Memory, and more—are essential in human development and play a key role in learning and using language.

The more researchers investigate how we acquire and process language, the clearer the relationship between our executive functions and language acquisition becomes.

Links between cognitive abilities and language-acquisition skills can be found throughout the Neuroscientific literature, including links between lexical-semantic processing and cognitive abilities such as Inhibition (Khanna and Boland, 2010), Working Memory and Updating (Weiland et al., 2014); links between syntactic processing and Inhibition, Shifting, and Updating (Novick et al., 2005Roberts et al., 2007); and links between both sentence comprehension (Daneman and Carpenter, 1980) and sentence production (Slevc, 2011) and the cognitive ability for Updating, to name a few.

Based on this growing body of scientific work in this area, scientists in the field see the potential of cognitive stimulation focused on specific executive functions and cognitive abilities for increasing and strengthening the neural networks underlying more general domains such as language skills.

But how can cognitive stimulation activities, such as those offered by CogniFit, improve our ability to learn a language? First, we have to understand the history and science behind cognitive stimulation techniques.

The Growth of Cognitive Stimulation

Cognitive stimulation—which includes techniques and strategies that aim to improve the cognitive functioning of different capacities and cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, memory, perception, abstraction, or language skills—has been an important area of interest among the scientific community since at least the 1970s when researchers began designing clinical intervention programs focused on the restoration of damaged cognitive functions in cognitive domains such as attention, executive functions, working memory, processing speed, and reasoning.

As the processes underlying cognitive stimulation began to mature, therapists began to use cognitive stimulation as a path to neuropsychological rehabilitation for patients with brain injury (Sohlberg and Mateer, 1987), depression (Zeiss et al., 1979), cognitive impairment (Labouvie-Vief and Gonda, 1976), hyperactivity (Douglas et al., 1976), or schizophrenia (Olbrich and Mussgay, 1990).

Over the years, cognitive stimulation has grown as a scientific tool. It has been used in a wide variety of areas, such as learning and education, psychological disorders, brain damage, or neurodegenerative disorders, with users reporting improvements in overall cognition and in specific cognitive domains in both healthy and unhealthy samples.

While early research into the effectiveness of cognitive stimulation interventions was focused mainly on how interventions affected the specific cognitive ability being trained, known as near transfer effects (van Heugten et al., 2016), more recent research has been looking into how cognitive stimulation can benefit more general cognitive domains and skills, known as far transfer effects (Dahlin et al. (2008)Hardy et al. (2015); Au et al. (2015)).

The scientific community is beginning to uncover the benefits and far transfer effects of cognitive stimulation beyond the training’s specific cognitive abilities. As this is happening, they have started exploring new ways to leverage cognitive stimulation tools for more generalized applications such as language acquisition.

Optimizing Cognitive Stimulation Programs to Achieve Far Transfer Effects

Based on this concept of near and far transfer effects, we can see the potential for cognitive stimulation tools, like those developed by CogniFit, in generalized domains such as language. But what does a cognitive stimulation intervention need in order to achieve these far transfer effects?

From what is shown in the scientific literature, there are three aspects of cognitive stimulation programs that may be at the center of achieving the beneficial far transfer effects. These include the validity of intervention activities, the timing of the training, and the adaptation of the training to the individual’s cognitive state at each stage of the intervention.

The validity of the intervention requires not only that the intervention trains the specific cognitive ability but also that it is engaging and motivates the user to adhere to and become invested in the intervention.

The timing of a cognitive stimulation intervention is critical. Cognitive stimulation activities activate specific neural activation patterns in the brain. Frequent, repeated training can help create new synapses and reorganize neural circuits. The more frequently that a user trains a specific cognitive ability, the stronger the neural circuits become.

Graphic projection of neural networks after 3 weeks.
Graphic projection of neural networks after 3 weeks.

The final aspect of cognitive stimulation programs may be the most important for achieving the desired far transfer effects. Adapting the level of difficulty of the cognitive stimulation tasks throughout the intervention is key to achieving the highest possible benefit. However, simply increasing the difficulty from one activity to the next may not be adequate for every situation. Natural variations in performance throughout the length of the intervention mean that each session should be scaled to the user. Dynamic adaptation, such as with CogniFit’s patented algorithms, is an “essential requisite to foster not only maximization of the benefits of the training, but also adherence to it.

Applying New Cognitive Stimulation Technologies to Language Acquisition

New technologies have made it possible to create engaging, interactive, practical, and dynamic cognitive stimulation training tools. In addition. the ability to collect and analyze massive amounts of data allows for the development of powerful algorithms which can create personalized training recommendations with dynamically adjusted difficulty. Taken together, these two massive advances in cognitive stimulation programs mean the potential to produce benefits in more general domains such as language is higher than ever.

While research into how training non-linguistic cognitive skills affects language learning, linguistic skills, and language control (Liu et al. 20162019) is still in its earliest stages, some studies are already seeing hopeful outcomes (Hayashi, 2019Karousou and Nerantzaki, 2020).

As our world becomes more interconnected and we interact more than ever before with people from different countries and cultures in our work, school, and travel, the importance of language learning will continue to increase.

Thankfully, it seems cognitive stimulation programs like CogniFit may make it easier for current and future multilinguals to acquire a new language.

This post is also available in: Russian