How does being bilingual affect your brain? It depends on how you use language

October 8th, 2020 by Depending on what you read, speaking more than one language may or may not make you smarter. These mixed messages are understandably confusing, and they’re due to the fact that nothing is quite as simple as it’s typically portrayed when it comes to neuroscience. We can’t give a simple “yes” or “no” to the question of whether being bilingual benefits your brain. Instead, it is becoming increasingly evident that whether and how your brain adapts to using multiple languages depends on what they are and how you use them. Research suggests that as you learn or regularly use a second language, it becomes constantly “active” alongside your native language in your brain. To enable communication, your brain has to select one language and inhibit the other. This process takes effort and the brain adapts to do this more effectively. It is altered both structurally (through changes in the size or shape of specific regions, and the integrity of white matter pathways that connect them) and functionally (through changes how much specific regions are used). These adaptations usually occur in brain regions and pathways that are also used for other cognitive processes known as “executive functions”. These include things like working memory and attentional control (for example, the ability to ignore competing, irrelevant information and focus on a target). Researchers measure these cognitive processes with specifically designed tasks. One example of such tests is the flanker task, in which participants have to indicate the direction of a specific arrow that is surrounded by other arrows that face in the same or opposite direction. Being bilingual can potentially improve performance on tasks like these, typically in either faster reaction times or higher accuracy. Read more: The Conversation

Norway has been bilingual since the Middle Ages

September 9th, 2020 by The fact that Norwegians wrote with runes in the Viking Age and Middle Ages is well known. But how did it go when alphabetic writing arrived and we switched from runes to the letters we know today? New research on inscriptions with letters shows that the transition was far slower than many believe. “We find inscriptions with letters and runes from the same time, on the same kind of artefacts,” says Elise Kleivane. “Here, the writing is in both Old Norse and Latin, and we see that runes and letters could be used for the same thing. What is interesting to see is what people chose to write in what language, and with what kind of alphabet,” she says. Kleivane is an Old Norse philologist and associate professor at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies (ILN) at the University of Oslo. Together with doctoral fellow Johan Bollaert, she has done research on precisely these inscriptions. The written culture flourishes The first written language culture in Norway begins with the runes in the 100s AD. Researchers assume that an oral culture mainly prevailed at this time, but inscriptions have been found on stone, metal and wooden sticks. “Based on what has been preserved, it looks as though there has been limited use of runic writing. Memorial stones have been found along with jewellery and precious artefacts, usually with names or other relatively short inscriptions. They probably wrote on more things than we have found – on birch bark, in the sand or on wood,” says Kleivane. In the early written sources of writing from the Viking Age, the texts are often short and there are not many of them – preserved at least. A common example is gravestones, with standard formulations about the person buried underneath. When the Latin language and writing system came to Norway with Christianity around the year 1000 AD, this changed. Read more: Mirage

Why it’s okay for bilingual children to mix languages

June 21st, 2018 by Few would consider mastering more than one language a bad idea. In fact, research points to a number of cognitive, economic and academic advantages in being bilingual. Parents who speak different languages understand the family home is an important setting to learn both, and seek various ways to help their children thrive bilingually. One of the best-known approaches is the “one-parent-one-language” strategy (OPOL). Each parent uses one language when communicating with their child, so their offspring learn both languages simultaneously. OPOL emphasises consistency – sticking to one language each – as key to its approach. But this creates the myth that mixing languages should always be avoided. My recent study, part of a new wave of multilingualism studies, would suggest this received wisdom is just that: a myth. My research looked at Japanese-British families living in the UK with pre and early school-age children who were following a more-or-less strict OPOL language policy. I was particularly interested in examining the impact of OPOL in the family home – how does this unique language environment affect the way children use languages? Most of the Japanese mothers who participated in my research were fluent in Japanese and English, while the fathers possessed an elementary grasp of Japanese. This made English the primary language of communication between the parents and outside the home. For this reason, the mothers were careful to carve out additional space for more sustained Japanese language learning with their children. In other words, this dedicated space for communicating in Japanese (the minority language) was time children would spend exclusively with their mother. This seemed to create a connection between “Japanese language” and “motherhood” in the children’s perception. This link became apparent in how children used Japanese as a means of emotional bonding with their mother and adopted a much broader behavioural “repertoire” than usually associated with language. For example, switching to Japanese could sometimes serve as a method to appease mum when she seemed unhappy. At other times, refusing to communicate in Japanese was a useful means of defiance, even when the dispute was not related to language. Language can never be a neutral communication tool. How it is used at home and beyond – socially, at school, in the workplace – brings additional connotations and meanings which are used consciously or unconsciously in communication. Read more: The Conversation

Artificial intelligence goes bilingual—without a dictionary

November 30th, 2017 by Automatic language translation has come a long way, thanks to neural networks—computer algorithms that take inspiration from the human brain. But training such networks requires an enormous amount of data: millions of sentence-by-sentence translations to demonstrate how a human would do it. Now, two new papers show that neural networks can learn to translate with no parallel texts—a surprising advance that could make documents in many languages more accessible. “Imagine that you give one person lots of Chinese books and lots of Arabic books—none of them overlapping—and the person has to learn to translate Chinese to Arabic. That seems impossible, right?” says the first author of one study, Mikel Artetxe, a computer scientist at the University of the Basque Country (UPV) in San Sebastiàn, Spain. “But we show that a computer can do that.” Most machine learning—in which neural networks and other computer algorithms learn from experience—is “supervised.” A computer makes a guess, receives the right answer, and adjusts its process accordingly. That works well when teaching a computer to translate between, say, English and French, because many documents exist in both languages. It doesn’t work so well for rare languages, or for popular ones without many parallel texts. The two new papers, both of which have been submitted to next year’s International Conference on Learning Representations but have not been peer reviewed, focus on another method: unsupervised machine learning. To start, each constructs bilingual dictionaries without the aid of a human teacher telling them when their guesses are right. That’s possible because languages have strong similarities in the ways words cluster around one another. The words for table and chair, for example, are frequently used together in all languages. So if a computer maps out these co-occurrences like a giant road atlas with words for cities, the maps for different languages will resemble each other, just with different names. A computer can then figure out the best way to overlay one atlas on another. Voilà! You have a bilingual dictionary. Read more: Science

Bad language: why being bilingual makes swearing easier

May 11th, 2017 by My dad had a liberal philosophy of childrearing, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge amount of people who live in multilingual settings. Many bilinguals report “feeling less” in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language. Read more: The Guardian

Is Perfect Bilingualism Attainable?

July 28th, 2016 by Raising children to speak two languages is no easy feat. Parents often find themselves enrolling children in language immersion programs, exposing them to different languages at home, encouraging them watch cartoons in another language, and sometimes even hiring language tutors or nannies to speak to their kids in foreign languages. But does this process need to be so hard? All we want is for our kids to become bilingual. While many parents might define bilingualism as a person who can speak two languages with native-like fluency, this ‘gold standard’ is often unreasonable and unattainable. Bilingualism exists on a continuum, where a speaker has varying levels of linguistic proficiency in a first language and a second language. The following article seeks to uncover a nuanced understanding of what it means to be bilingual, in hopes of breaking down the seemingly daunting task of raising bilingual children. Read more: The Huffington Post

Do Bilinguals Have Superior Cognitive Control?

October 28th, 2015 by The frequent switching between languages in bilinguals' brains has led many to ask whether this lifelong exercise also makes bilinguals better at controlling other mental processes, giving them a cognitive edge. That remains to be determined. But in a new study, researchers took a more nuanced look at cognition in bilinguals, and rather than focusing on the question of the so-called bilingual advantage, examined how bilinguals used their brains while performing a simple cognitive task. And, as it turns out, they used them differently than monolinguals. Read more: Braindecoder