• Question: Is there a connection between athletic ability and language proficiency?

    Asked by gertzerl17 to Yana, Paul, Lucy, Liz, Jo, Jessie, Catherine W on 8 Jan 2018.
    • Photo: Paul Matusz

      Paul Matusz answered on 8 Jan 2018:

      Hi there,
      Thanks for this great question. An idea that has been most extensively tested in this area is whether doing more sports (and what type) improves brain and cognitive (for example, perceptual skills, IQ, memory) functions as well as academic skills (including, for example, maths or reading etc.skills) in school-aged children and teenagers.

      In general, research in both animals and humans quite consistently supports the idea that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, is good for our brain and our mental faculties. The positive effects range from increased secretion of proteins and growth hormones (see below) through increased numbers of new neurons and their longevity to changes in the structure and function of areas important for learning and memory (for example, the hippocampus).

      While all this evidence could suggest that getting kids to do more sports is better for their fundamental cognitive-academic skills, such as language proficiency, this general relationship has been more systematically tested only in the last 10-15 years. Overall, aerobic fitness is found to have a small but positive relationship with academic achievement. While some studies have not shown such a relationship, this association has been confirmed by two recent large (>35,000 students) studies. At the same time, even these, and similar studies in this area, need to be interpreted with caution as, for example, they typically compared different groups of students (rather than following one group consistently), and the exercise interventions they used were short and not randomised (this way, confounding the results by the expectations of the participants, experimenters etc.). Thankfully, the relationship between aerobic exercise and academic achievement is being currently scrutinised more carefully in several randomised controlled trials that are designed to prevent these confounds.

      One prominent hypothesis regarding the mechanism by which aerobic activity improves cognitive functions suggests increased levels of a protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); however, this mechanism is yet to be strongly supported by research.

    • Photo: Jo Taylor

      Jo Taylor answered on 9 Jan 2018:

      Your question asks about whether children who are better at athletics might be expected to be better at language and I’m afraid I don’t know of any research on this. However, one thing I do want to say is that for kids who are struggling with language or reading the best interventions focus on these skills, and should not be replaced with an exercise intervention. There is very strong evidence that interventions focusing on movements, balancing etc. do not help children with reading difficulties, see for example:

    • Photo: Catherine Wheatley

      Catherine Wheatley answered on 10 Jan 2018:

      Hi this is a timely question: at Fit to Study we are looking at the impact of school-based physical activity on academic attainment. As Paul described, there is lab-based evidence that aerobic exercise is linked to brain changes and improved cognitive functioning. At the molecular level, exercise can promote the production of growth hormones, and at the cellular level, these hormones can encourage neurons and blood vessels in the brain to grow and stay healthy, especially in areas of the brain responsible for memory and attention. Having said that, finding robust evidence that exercise leads to better performance on academic measures is difficult. As Paul outlined, it can be difficult to compare and draw conclusions from the many different experiments that have taken place. We need more research in schools! So to answer your question: there is no proven connection between athletic ability and language proficiency. But – if athletic ability is linked to higher levels of activity, this might promote brain changes that are good for all kinds of learning, including languages.

    • Photo: Yana Weinstein

      Yana Weinstein answered on 22 Jan 2018:

      This was a tough one for me! I didn’t know the research, so am happy to have learned from the others who answered 🙂