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Thou Shalt Be Bilingual

October 25, 2010

I am trying to be patient, but J’en ai marre!!–I’m fed up!! At least at times, that’s how I feel.  There is the grammar, the pronunciation and the vocabulary; the masculine and the feminine words, which coincidentally have sometimes different pronunciations for the same exact word; there’s the Familiar versus the Formal. Then, there are the countless verb conjugations with Past Tense, Future Tense, Subjective Tense, Present Tense; Am I starting to seem a bit tense? And let’s not even get started on the mistakes I’ve made in the slightest pronunciation that took me from saying “I was able to” into declaring that “I have head lice.”

Learning a second language is hardly a simple task for most. I’m no exception, but I’m bent on relinquishing my California accent and embracing French fluency. So determined, in fact, that I spend four days a week in French classes. I read French journals and switch on the French subtitles for my DVDs. I study. I study a lot. As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve committed this past year to living in France and have even taken on a French boyfriend with beaucoup de patience!

I’m starving for comprehension and anxiously wishing that a day will come when my brain suddenly “clicks” and magically understands everything in French. I don’t know if that day will ever arrive, which makes me wonder, did I miss my window of opportunity? Is it all in my head? And more so, what is it about a second language that is so different from learning our maternal language?

With recent advances in technology, neuroscientists are now able to take a very close look into the functioning of our brains and study specific areas of the cortex in detail. They are intrigued by the modular nature of our brains and its dedicated language processing areas.

Two technologies: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) have become the standard tools for studying bilingualism and brain language processing in general. The tools consist of machines using powerful magnetic fields and complex mathematical signal analysis to interpret the data.

fMRI detects subtle changes in blood flow to specific parts of the brain revealing which groups of neurons are firing at any given time inside brain tissue. It then spits out color-coded images of brain activity resembling the weather Doppler radar maps.

The PET scanner, on the other hand, is a bit more invasive, as it detects the concentration of tracer molecules; short-lived radio isotopes injected or inhaled into a person’s blood stream, to produce an image which reveals neuronal activity. The tracer molecules, commonly fluorodeoxyglucose (a sugar), are transported with the blood to the brain regions that are in need of energy. This happens when we think or perform a mental task such as speaking, listening, problem solving and so on. The scanner records the changes in density of tracer molecules in the brain during these mental tasks, providing data for analysis.

What makes these scanning devices quite extraordinary is that they allow researchers to examine not just structure of the brain, but activity, as well. One research study was completed using a fMRI to examine Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (the language areas of the brain used for comprehension and speaking) in twelve volunteers who spoke more than one language. Broca’s area, in the left frontal lobe of the brain, is involved mainly in the production of spoken and written language, along with language processing and comprehension. Wernicke’s area is found in the temporal lobe and is more associated with the understanding of language. Half of the twelve subjects in the study had learned a second language in childhood while others, like moi, didn’t start until post-puberty.

For the early bilinguals, their brains showed processing of their maternal language and the second language in large, overlapping regions of the brain language areas, especially in Broca’s area. However, those individuals who learned a language later in life, were shown to use separate regions of the brain to process language. In the latter, Wernicke’s area became activated, but the fMRI imaging showed non-overlapping and even adjacent regions of Broca’s area working. This finding suggests that language representation in Wernike’s area is less affected by the age of initial exposure to a language. It also suggests what scientists once believed to be true; that different languages were represented in different areas of the brain, though it seems to only be marginally true for late bilinguals.

Moreover, the main regions that were found to be used most during language translation for late learners fell outside of the classical language areas. The anterior cingulate and bilateral subcortical structures (known as our brain’s gear shifters), lit up, leading researchers to suspect that we adopt and need greater coordination when speaking a non-maternal language.

These are brain structures that assist us while learning. They are involved in carrying out error detection tasks and provide the cognitive flexibility required for problem solving and grasping new information.

The evidence of changes in neural activity in different parts of the brain between two languages is shown to be driven by fluency; the more fluent a speaker is in the second language, the more obvious the overlap in Broca’s area can be seen; the same area that we house our maternal language.

Other studies have shown that when bilinguals are rapidly converting back and forth between their two languages (also known as Bilingual Mode), they show significantly more activity in the right hemisphere than monolingual speakers. This is especially true in the frontal area of the brain, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DFC). The DFC is important in working memory and executive function, including the regulation of thinking and action. It is theorized that this area of the cortex serves to attenuate interference that results from having to actively enhance and suppress two languages in alternation. Finally, these findings support the notion that switching between languages involves increased general executive processing.

As the case may prove, those lucky enough to learn a second language during childhood use the same areas of their brains and perhaps it’s that speaking the second language is just as natural as their first. For us late bloomers, it’s not so simple. It takes a bit more effort, a moment more to process and a few other areas of the cortex to untangle the knots of translation.

The good news is that our brains are capable of changing–of plasticity. For a long time, it was believed that once we reached a certain age, plasticity ceased; that our brain networks became fixed. It has now been proven that through learning and experience, through acting and reacting, our brains continue to change, continue to adjust and actually make a shift in physical anatomy. It means a change in the internal structure of our brain’s neural networks.  It means new connections through neurons can be formed. It means an increase in the number of firing synapses between neurons. It means there’s hope.

The Advantages

Could these findings lead scientists to greater insights into how to prevent or delay dementia? Should the public be enrolling in local language courses? Consider this: Neuroplasticity has been observed in the brains of bilinguals showing functional changes in the brain, as the left inferior parietal cortex (which processes our communication skills) becomes larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains.

In addition, the neurobiology of bilingualism shows that being fluent in two languages, particularly from early childhood, not only enhances a person’s ability to concentrate, but enhances working memory and might also protect against the onset of dementia or other age related cognitive decline. Some theorize that speaking two languages may increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain keeping nerve connections healthy, all of which are thought to ward off dementia. Just as we exercise for our bodies, it’s beneficial to put our minds to work with cognitive exercises.

Some studies have shown that bilingual adults also have denser gray matter, which is the brain tissue packed with information processing nerve cell and fibers. Their denser gray matter is also more common in the brain’s left hemisphere, where the language and communication skills are controlled.  It can now be demonstrated that stimulating the brain through learning exercises can have a significant impact on brain health, thanks to the new findings regarding neuroplasticity. The changes that occur in the cortex through stimulation can contribute to an increase in what is referred to as our brain reserve. The more brain reserve, the more resistant the brain is to age-related or disease-related damages.

The Future

The research regarding language and brain processing is an ongoing study as scientists try to organize the intricacies of the mind. Knowing more about how the brain processes languages and bilingualism can lead to a better understanding of how the brain organizes speech and communication tasks. It holds promise for treating patients with speech comprehension problems after a brain injury such as stroke or concussion, and targeting the correct areas during brain surgery. The science of Bilingualism may even pioneer the way into more focused and effective therapies for helping individuals recover their communication skills.

Furthermore, with increasing globalization, more people will need to acquire a second language and more children will be raised in bilingual households. The world is demanding more bilingualism. As technology continues to advance and we continue to learn more about the inner-workings of the brain, techniques for learning and teaching could be enhanced in the school system.

As for me, ten months down and I’ve found that my brain is adapting much better.  Comprehension comes easier, conversation is achievable and I’ve finally found the courage to leave the apartment without my French/English dictionary. Plus, with the advancements and information about language acquisition, maybe a third language could one day be an option!  But for now, one thing at a time.  C’est la vie.

Lauren Migliore is a freelance writer currently living in Paris, studying French and pursuing studies in neuropsychology.


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