Struggling to Learn a New Language? Blame It on Your Stable Brain

A study in patients with epilepsy is helping researchers understand how the brain manages the task of learning a new language while retaining our mother tongue. The study, by neuroscientists at UC San Francisco, sheds light on the age-old question of why it’s so difficult to learn a second language as an adult.

The somewhat surprising results gave the team a window into how the brain navigates the tradeoff between neuroplasticity — the ability to grow new connections between neurons when learning new things — and stability, which allows us to maintain the integrated networks of things we’ve already learned. The findings appear in the Aug. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“When learning a new language, our brains are somehow accommodating both of these forces as they’re competing against each other,” said Matt Leonard, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.  

By using electrodes on the surface of the brain to follow high-resolution neural signals, the team found that clusters of neurons scattered throughout the speech cortex appear to fine-tune themselves as a listener gains familiarity with foreign sounds.  

“These are our first insights into what’s changing in the brain between first hearing the sounds of a foreign language and being able to recognize them,” said Leonard, who is a principal investigator on the study.  

Read more: University of California San Francisco

The more languages you speak, the easier it is for the brain to learn more

TOKYO, Japan — For those of us confined to knowing just one language, learning an additional dialect can feel impossible. Many bilinguals, however, marvel at the language skills of multilinguals (individuals fluent in three or more languages). Interestingly, a new Japanese study reports the collection of ground-breaking neurological evidence indicating lingual skills are additive. In other words, the more languages you speak, the easier it will be to learn another.

These findings potentially explain why one person fluent in English and Spanish may be in awe of someone who can speak German, Russian, and English. Meanwhile, that trilingual individual can’t believe it when he or she meets someone else who can speak German, Italian, French, English, and Russian.

“The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” says study co-author Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo in a release.

Researchers measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual study participants as each person attempted to decipher words and sentences written and spoken in Kazakh — a language no participant was familiar with at all. All subjects were native Japanese speakers, with most also being fluent in English. Some of the multilingual participants could speak up to five languages including Chinese, Russian, Korean, and German.

Read more: StudyFinds

How Language Hijacked the Brain

I’m sitting in the sun on one of the first mild days of the spring, talking with a modern-day flintknapper about the origins of human language. His name is Neill Bovaird, and he’s neither an archaeologist nor a linguist, just a 38-year-old bearded guy with a smartphone in his pocket who uses Stone Age technology to produce Stone Age tools. Bovaird has been flintknapping for a couple decades, and as we talk, the gok gok gok of him striking a smaller rock against a larger one punctuates our conversation. Every now and then the gokking stops: A new flake, sharper than a razor blade, breaks off in his palm.

I’ve come to see Bovaird, who teaches wilderness-survival skills in western Massachusetts, because I want to better understand the latest theories on the emergence of language—particularly a new body of research arguing that if not for our hominin ancestors’ hard-earned ability to produce complex tools, language as we know it might not have evolved at all. The research is occurring at the cutting-edge intersections of evolutionary biology, experimental archaeology, neuroscience, and linguistics, but much of it is driven by a very old question: Where did language come from?

Oren Kolodny, a biologist at Stanford University, puts the question in more scientific terms: “What kind of evolutionary pressures could have given rise to this really weird and surprising phenomenon that is so critical to the essence of being human?” And he has proposed a provocative answer. In a recent paper in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Kolodny argues that early humans—while teaching their kin how to make complex tools—hijacked the capacity for language from themselves.

Read more: The Atlantic

How does the brain process speech? We now know the answer, and it’s fascinating

Neuroscientists have known that speech is processed in the auditory cortex for some time, along with some curious activity within the motor cortex. How this last cortex is involved though, has been something of a mystery, until now. A new study by two NYU scientists reveals one of the last holdouts to a process of discovery which started over a century and a half ago. In 1861, French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca identified what would come to be known as “Broca’s area.” This is a region in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus.

This area is responsible for processing and comprehending speech, as well as producing it. Interestingly, a fellow scientist, whom Broca had to operate on, was post-op missing Broca’s area entirely. Yet, he was still able to speak. He couldn’t initially make complex sentences, however, but in time regained all speaking abilities. This meant another region had pitched in, and a certain amount of neuroplasticity was involved.

In 1871, German neurologist Carl Wernicke discovered another area responsible for processing speech through hearing, this time in the superior posterior temporal lobe. It’s now called Wernicke’s area. The model was updated in 1965 by the eminent behavioral neurologist, Norman Geschwind. The updated map of the brain is known as the Wernicke-Geschwind model.

Wernicke and Broca gained their knowledge through studying patients with damage to certain parts of the brain. In the 20th century, electrical brain stimulation began to give us an even greater understanding of the brain’s inner workings. Patients undergoing brain surgery in the mid-century were given weak electrical brain stimulation. The current allowed surgeons to avoid damaging critically important areas. But it also gave them more insight into what areas controlled what functions.

With the advent of the fMRI and other scanning technology, we were able to look at the activity in regions of the brain and how language travels across them. We now know that impulses associated with language go between Boca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Communication between the two help us understand grammar, how words sound, and their meaning. Another region, the fusiform gyrus, helps us classify words.

Read more: Big Think

Language Utilizes Ancient Brain Circuits That Predate Humans

A new paper by an international team of researchers presents strong evidence that language is learned using two general-purpose brain systems (declarative memory and procedural memory) that are evolutionarily ancient and not language specific. Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that children learning their native language and adults learning a foreign language do not rely on brain circuitry specifically dedicated to language learning. Instead, language acquisition piggybacks on ancient, general-purpose neurocognitive mechanisms that preexist Homo sapiens.

These findings were published online January 29, 2018, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For this analysis, the research team statistically synthesized the findings of 16 previous studies that examined language learning via declarative and procedural memory, which are two well-studied brain systems.

What Is the Difference Between Declarative Memory and Procedural Memory?

Declarative memory refers to crystallized knowledge that you could learn while sitting in a chair without having to practice finely-tuned motor coordination. Declarative memories, such as knowing all 50 states and the District of Columbia or memorizing SAT vocab words, can easily be described on a written test. On the flip side, procedural memory encompasses things like playing a musical instrument or riding a bicycle, which everyone must learn by actually performing the task. Over time, procedural memory becomes automatized in unconscious ways through practice, practice, practice.

Over a decade ago, when I created “The Athlete’s Way” program to optimize sports performance, the foundation of my coaching method was to take a dual-pronged approach that targeted declarative (explicit) memory and procedural (implicit) memory separately. Notably, the discovery that ancient brain circuits are used to learn a language—and are also used to master sports—corroborates that these neurocognitive systems have multiple purposes.

“These brain systems are also found in animals. For example, rats use them when they learn to navigate a maze,” co-author Phillip Hamrick of Kent State University in Ohio said in a statement. “Whatever changes these systems might have undergone to support language, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability is quite remarkable.”

Interestingly, results of this analysis showed that memorizing vocabulary words used in a language relied on declarative memory. However, grammar and syntax, which allow us to fluidly combine words into sentences that follow the rules of a language, relies more on procedural memory.

When acquiring their native language, children utilize procedural memory to master grammar and syntax without necessarily “knowing” the rules. However, when adults begin to learn a second language, grammatical rules are initially memorized using declarative memory. As would be expected, grammar and syntax switch to procedural memory systems at later stages of language acquisition as someone becomes more fluent.

“The findings have broad research, educational, and clinical implications” co-author Jarrad Lum of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia said in a statement.

Read more: Psychology Today

How you learned a second language influences the way your brain works

Over the past few years, you might have noticed a surfeit of articles covering current research on bilingualism. Some of them suggest that it sharpens the mind, while others are clearly intended to provoke more doubt than confidence, such as Maria Konnikova’s “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” (2015) in The New Yorker. The pendulum swing of the news cycle reflects a real debate in the cognitive science literature, wherein some groups have observed effects of bilingualism on non-linguistic skills, abilities and function, and others have been unable to replicate these findings.

Despite all the fuss that has been made about the “bilingual advantage,” most researchers have moved on from the simplistic ‘is there an advantage or not’ debate. Rather than asking whether bilingualism per se confers a cognitive advantage, researchers are now taking a more nuanced approach by exploring the various aspects of bilingualism to better understand their individual effects.

To give an idea of the nuances I am talking about, consider this: there is more than one type of bilingualism. A “simultaneous bilingual” learns two languages from birth; an “early sequential bilingual” might speak one language at home but learn to speak the community language at school; and a “late sequential bilingual” might grow up with one language and then move to a country that speaks another. The differences between these three types are not trivial—they often lead to different levels of proficiency and fluency in multiple aspects of language, from pronunciation to reading comprehension.

Read more: Quartz

6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we’ve learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings.

But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: Bilingual education. “In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,” says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Again and again, researchers have found, “bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime,” in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

At the same time, one of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

Read more: NPR

“Whistled Languages” Reveal How the Brain Processes Information

Before electronic communications became a ubiquitous part of people’s lives, rural villagers created whistled versions of their native languages to speak from hillside to hillside or even house to house.

Herodotus mentioned whistled languages in the fourth book of his work The Histories, but until recently linguists had done little research on the sounds and meanings of this now endangered form of communication.

New investigations have discovered the presence of whistled speech all over the globe. About 70 populations worldwide communicate this way, a far greater number than the dozen or so groups that had been previously identified.

Linguists have tried to promote interest in these languages—and schools in the Canary Islands now teach its local variant. A whistled language represents both a cultural heritage and a way to study how the brain processes information.

Read more: Scientific American

Brain ‘reads’ sentence same way in 2 languages

When the brain “reads” or decodes a sentence in English or Portuguese, its neural activation patterns are the same, researchers report.

Published in NeuroImage, the study is the first to show that different languages have similar neural signatures for describing events and scenes. By using a machine-learning algorithm, the research team was able to understand the relationship between sentence meaning and brain activation patterns in English and then recognize sentence meaning based on activation patterns in Portuguese.

The findings can be used to improve machine translation, brain decoding across languages, and, potentially, second language instruction.

“This tells us that, for the most part, the language we happen to learn to speak does not change the organization of the brain,” says Marcel Just, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Semantic information is represented in the same place in the brain and the same pattern of intensities for everyone. Knowing this means that brain to brain or brain to computer interfaces can probably be the same for speakers of all languages,” Just says.

Read more: Futurity

How language is processed by your brain

If you read a sentence (such as this one) about kicking a ball, neurons related to the motor function of your leg and foot will be activated in your brain. Similarly, if you talk about cooking garlic, neurons associated with smelling will fire up. Since it is almost impossible to do or think about anything without using language — whether this entails an internal talk-through by your inner voice or following a set of written instructions — language pervades our brains and our lives like no other skill.

For more than a century, it’s been established that our capacity to use language is usually located in the left hemisphere of the brain, specifically in two areas: Broca’s area (associated with speech production and articulation) and Wernicke’s area (associated with comprehension). Damage to either of these, caused by a stroke or other injury, can lead to language and speech problems or aphasia, a loss of language.

In the past decade, however, neurologists have discovered it’s not that simple: language is not restricted to two areas of the brain or even just to one side, and the brain itself can grow when we learn new languages.

Read more: CNN

Hardwiring languages in the brain

The first language you hear as a baby, even if only for a very brief period, seems to “hardwire” your brain. New research from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute shows that traces of early speech recognition patterns remain even many years later.

Fred Genesee (PhD) is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author of the new study.

The study entitled ”Past Experience Shapes Ongoing Neural Patterns for Language” was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

This newest study builds on an earlier one in which Chinese-sounding words were tested on Chinese children who had been adopted from China as babies by French-speaking Quebec couples.

The children had not heard Chinese spoken since the adoption and had then grown up as monolingual French speakers.

In that study they were compared with fluently bilingual Canadian-born children of Chinese descent who learned to speak Chinese and then French. That study showed the adoptees’ brains, even though having no knowledge of Chinese, reacted similarly to the Chinese sounding words as those of the bilingual children.

Read more: Radio Canada International

A ‘lost’ first language can influence how your brain processes sounds

Offering further proof of the impressionable nature of the newborn brain, researchers studying the influence of early language have discovered a life-long impact.

In a paper published this week in Nature Communications, scientists from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute explain how even brief exposure to language permanently wires how our brains process sounds and second languages later in life. So even if you can’t remember a lick of the French your parents spoke to you as a newborn, that brief exposure to the dialect makes your brain’s handling of a second language different from someone who has spoken or heard only one language.

Read more: Mother Nature Network