How does the brain learn language?

In this article we are going to answer the question ‘’How does the brain learn language?’’ We will talk about how the brain changes when learning a new language and if learning a second language in adulthood brings the same benefits to the brain as being bilingual.

How does the brain learn language?

When a person learns a new language, she or he establishes a neural circle. From the first language learned, the person begins to configure the rest. In this way, the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes are considerably stimulated.

Contrary to popular belief, the areas in charge of language are not the same in each and every one of us. The main distinction has to do with whether we are left-handed or right-handed. 

For that 97% of the population that is right-handed, the language areas are mainly distributed in the left hemisphere, unlike for left-handed people.

In addition, our brain is hyper specialized and with language there is no exception. The areas closest to the back or occipital part of the skull, that is, Wernicke’s area, collect information from our senses for understanding. Instead, the most frontal part is in charge of executive control, in this case, Broca’s area controls the production of language.

But it is not only about the specialization of the brain, but about how those areas communicate with each other. In the case of language, this function fulfills the arched fascicle that conducts information between Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.

For this reason, in Broca’s Aphasia the production of language is damaged, in Wernicke’s Aphasia understanding and in Conduction Aphasia the Arch Fasciculus.

Even so, the world of aphasias is not so simple because brain injuries do not have to affect only a single part of those responsible for language. That is why there are Transcortical Motor Aphasia, Transcortical Sensory Aphasia, Anomic Aphasia and Global Aphasia.

Speech doesn’t just depend on the brain

But not only is proper brain function necessary for adequate language production, it is also necessary for other structures of the Central Nervous System to function properly. If not, we may encounter the following problems:

Dysarthria: dysarthria is a term that is given to the incorrect articulation of the phonemes and that has a neurological origin due to an injury in the areas of the central nervous system.

Dysglossia: dysglossia is called the incorrect articulation of the phonemes caused by a malformation of the orofacial structures (teeth, lips, nose, jaw, tongue and palate). It is also called “organic dyslalia.”

Dyslalia: it is an inability to correctly pronounce certain phonemes or groups of phonemes. It can be evolutionary or functional.

The part of the brain that learns language is also present in other animals?

Language does not make us as special as we thought. According to new research published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, there is new evidence that strongly suggests that language is learned in brain systems that are also used for many other purposes and even predate humans.

The research, combining results from multiple studies with a total of 665 participants, shows that children learn their mother tongue and other languages ​​in evolutionarily ancient brain circuits.

“Our conclusion is that language is learned in older general-purpose systems, and it stands in contrast to the long-standing theory that language depends on innately specified language modules that are only found in humans,” says the lead researcher of the study, Michael T. 

Ullman, PhD, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine 

“These brain systems are also found in animals, for example rats use them to navigate a maze,” says co-author Phillip Hamrick, PhD, of Kent State University. 

“Whatever changes these systems have had to endure, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability, is quite remarkable.”

The results can help treat language disorders

The study has important implications not only for understanding the biology and evolution of language, but also for improving language learning, both for people learning a foreign language and for those with deficiencies of language, such as autism, dyslexia, or aphasia.

The research statistically synthesized the findings of 16 studies that examined language learning in two well-studied brain systems: explicit and procedural memory. The results showed that learning new words was correlated with explicit memory, which we use to memorize objects or faces.

Grammar skills, which allow us to combine words into sentences according to the rules of a language, showed a different pattern.

For example, children who acquire their mother tongue are more highly correlated with learning procedural memory, which we use to learn tasks like driving, riding a bike, or playing a musical instrument.

However, in adults learning a foreign language, grammar was correlated with explicit memory in the early stages of language learning, although with procedural memory in later stages. 

The correlations were large and were found consistently across languages ​​(English, French, Finnish, and Japanese) and tasks (reading, listening, and speaking), suggesting that the links between language and brain systems are strong.

The results have broad scientific, educational and clinical implications. “Researchers still know very little about the genetic and biological bases of language learning, and the new findings may lead to advancements in these areas,” says co-author Jarrad Ullman, PhD, of Deakin University in Australia.

“We know much more about the genetics and biology of brain systems than we do about these same aspects of language learning. Since our results suggest that language learning depends on brain systems, genetics, biology and the mechanisms of learning these systems may very well also be ready for language,” he adds.

For example, although researchers know very little about which genes underlie language, numerous genes have been identified that play particular roles in the two brain systems. The findings of this new study suggest that these genes may also perform similar functions in language.

Along the same lines, the evolution of these brain systems and the way in which they became the basis of language should shed light on the evolution of language.In addition, the results can lead to interventions that could enhance learning of foreign languages and language issues in disorders, Ullman says.

Various drugs and behavioral strategies have been shown to improve learning or information retention in brain systems, he says. These approaches can also be used to facilitate language learning, including in disorders such as aphasia, dyslexia, and autism.

How does your brain change when you learn a new language (or several languages)?

Advantages.

1. Change your brain plasticity

Speaking two or more languages ​​improves brain plasticity. This means that it enhances learning, memory and cognitive ability in general. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify its structure in a positive way to adapt to external and internal changes.

In a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, participants had to complete a cognitive plasticity task; Although both monolingual and bilingual adults were able to complete it, bilinguals did it faster.

In short, people who speak several languages ​​adapt more easily to a new or unexpected circumstance than people who only speak one language.

2. “Gray matter” and “white matter” in the brain

By comparing the brain images of bilingual and monolingual people, scientists have found that the brain of bilingual people has a greater amount and density of gray matter, as well as greater integrity in the “white matter”, which provides greater efficiency in the transmission of information or knowledge.

 So does speaking other languages ​​make you smarter? The answer to this question is no, since to date there is no serious study that shows that there is a link between bilingualism and IQ.

3. How your concentration changes when learning multiple languages

According to several studies, bilingual people have a better ability to concentrate and focus their attention, as well as easier to deal with multitasking situations.

This is because bilingual people are used to switching from one language to another frequently, which helps to develop executive functions of the brain such as inhibition (a cognitive mechanism that helps to ignore irrelevant content), change (shifting) (the flexibility to make continuous changes between 2 tasks) and working memory.

4. Alzheimer’s: does learning several languages ​​help prevent this disease?

When a bilingual person switches from one language to another they are exercising their brain. This “mental gymnastics” helps to maintain cognitive function in older people, which can delay dementia and, specifically, Alzheimer’s.

 Existing studies on the subject have shown that people who speak more than one language begin to show Alzheimer’s symptoms 4-5 years later.

5. Bilingualism and strokes

Scientists at the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences, located in India, have published a study showing that speaking multiple languages ​​could reduce cognitive damage after a stroke.

The researchers found that around 40% of those affected who spoke two or more languages ​​maintained normal cognitive functions after suffering a stroke, a percentage that dropped to 20% among monolinguals.

In addition, the bilingual affected obtained better results in tests that measured the capacity of attention, and the ability to remember and organize information.

Does learning a second language as an adult bring the same benefits to the brain as being bilingual?

The study carried out by researchers at the University of Kent reveals that speaking two languages ​​has the same positive effect on the brain as bilingualism, regardless of the age at which the second language is learned. 

To demonstrate this, the researchers analyzed the brain images of a group of bilingual volunteers, not bilingual but knowledgeable in two languages, and a third monolingual group, and found the same structural changes in the white matter of the brain in the first 2 groups

Possible downsides of speaking multiple languages

As we have just seen, speaking multiple languages ​​is very beneficial for our brain. However, bilingualism can have certain disadvantages. The first possible disadvantage of bilingualism is the interference between the two languages.

That is, you want to say something in one language, and use vocabulary or grammatical structures from the other. The interference increases when both languages ​​are active and can be greater when the 2 languages ​​are close. 

For example, if you are learning several Romance languages ​​- Italian, French, Portuguese – it is very possible that you will make mistakes speaking in these languages ​​by incorporating some Spanish structures and words into them, or that you will confuse them between them.

As you practice your languages, these interferences occur less and less, but remember that you will always have a “stronger” language that will tend to predominate and, at times, interfere with other languages. 

Another disadvantage that is mentioned in some studies on bilingualism is the decrease in verbal fluency. According to the researchers, this may be due to the extra time a bilingual person needs to choose the language and / or decide whether a particular name belongs to one or another language. 

Has it ever happened to you that you have something “on the tip of your tongue”? 

You know, when you can’t remember the word you want to use, but you have the impression that you know it, and we can still mention some of its characteristics, such as its first letter. 

It is interesting that this phenomenon is more frequent in bilingual people than in monolingual people.

FAQS: How does the brain learn language?

How does the brain acquire language?

The inferior frontal gyrus is triggered in this situation to cope with the new vocabulary and try to define the meaning of terms and phrases. Language learning is a long-term phase in which information is mistakenly stored in the brain to make it ready for oral and written use.

What is the role of the brain in language learning?

Broca’s region, located in the brain’s frontal lobe, is related to the development of speech, and recent studies have shown that it also plays an important role in understanding language. In conjunction with working memory, Broca’s area works to help a person to use verbal speech and spoken words.

How is language related to the brain?

In the human brain, language plays a central role, from how we perceive colour to how we make moral decisions. In addition, speakers of different languages, as influenced by the structures and habits of their languages, acquire different cognitive abilities and predispositions.

How does learning a new language affect the brain?

Language learning helps develop the thinking ability and memory skills of people. … “Since the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and improve the natural ability of your brain to concentrate.”

What kind of language stimulates the brain?

Broca’s area, located in the left frontal lobe, which is responsible for speech output and articulation, and Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal lobe, are the key parts of the brain involved in language processes and are correlated with language development and understanding.

In this article we answered the question ‘’How does the brain learn language?’’ We talked about how the brain changes when learning a new language and if learning a second language in adulthood brings the same benefits to the brain as being bilingual.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!

References:

Phillip Hamrick, Jarrad A. G. Lum, and Michael T. Ullman (2017). Child first language and adult second language are both tied to general-purpose learning systems.  the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (7) 1487-1492 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1713975115

Friederici AD (2002). Towards a neural basis of auditory sentence processing. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6 (2), 78-84 PMID: 15866191

Golestani N, Molko N, Dehaene S, LeBihan D, & Pallier C (2007). Brain structure predicts the learning of foreign speech sounds. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991), 17 (3), 575-82 PMID: 16603709

Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, & Liu HM (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 9096-101 PMID: 12861072

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