Why put so much effort into learning a second language?

I have loved the study of French language since the day I started classes in 9th grade. Even though Neuroscience is my primary major, my French second major has always been a passion and an outlet from core sciences. While this is my 3rd time in Paris, I’ve (finally) noticed that fluency is coming more naturally, even when I’m flipping between conversations and homework in French to texts and Skype sessions in English. As a double major in French and Neuroscience, (naturally) I was interested in finding out how language development and the brain’s response are interconnected.

I have stayed with 3 homestays and lived in the Cité Universitaire over the past 5 years. [image souce: Google maps]

Over the past 5 years, I have stayed with 3 homestays and lived in the Cité Universitaire. [image souce: Google maps]

Paris is an ideal place to begin an inquiry into language and speech. The earliest roots can be attributed to the work pioneered here by Paul Broca, the French physician and anatomist, who studied the speech production centers of the brain – now termed Broca’s area.

The brain Broca studied at Musée Dupuytren [image source: google images]

I visited the brain Broca studied at Musée Dupuytren [image source: Google images]

Advances in technology not available to Broca in the 1800s allow us to use neuroimaging methods to reveal specific functional brain patterns in learning a second language. After doing some research on the effect of bilingualism on the brain, I think that what I’ve been experiencing in my studies abroad is likely an actual change in brain structure. A property known as plasticity is the ability of the brain to physically and functionally change in response to factors such as environmental stimuli or cognitive demand (Stein et al., 2010). This process occurs in everyone who learns or speaks a second language, which turns out to be over half the global population (Bialystok and Barac, 2013). Learning a language in addition to your native tongue induces these changes in the brain (Stein et al., 2010). While this process occurs regardless of age, the speed of plasticity directly correlates to the long-term proficiency of an individual (Stein et al., 2010). So, relative to the time I started learning French in 9th grade, my immersion experience these last six months has allowed my brain to greatly pick up speed in making physical and functional changes compared to my 15-year-old self.

Not only is the study of French language a passion, being bilingual (or as close as I’ll ever get) advances cognitive control meaning that bilinguals develop better decision making and conflict mediation skills than monolinguals, according to the bilingual cognitive advantage hypothesis (Bialystok and Barac, 2013). This development results from a bilingual’s ability to better monitor life-long experience, cultural sensitivity, and mentally separate and switch between two languages (Stein et al., 2010).

A study in 2011 tested the impact of bilingualism on conflict monitoring and found that bilinguals not only resolve cognitive conflicts more efficiently (meaning with less neural input), but that their brain also better sorts and makes sense of conflicting input (Abutelabi et al, 2011). Using a group of 17 highly proficient German-Italian bilinguals and 14 Italian monolinguals, researchers studied the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the brain center involved with language control and monitoring conflicting information, through blood flow measurements in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Participants were then asked to perform language and non-language switching tasks. For the language-switching task, monolinguals were presented with a set of 32 different pictures and asked to produce a noun or a verb associated with the picture based on a color-coded system (red for nouns and green for verbs). Bilinguals were then shown these same pictures, but asked to describe the picture in either German or Italian, per another color-coded system (green for German and blue for Italian). Researchers found that ACC activity was significantly increased in bilinguals. For the non-language switching task, the participants were presented with a cross in the middle of the screen to fixate their line of sight during the entire trial. Five arrows then appeared in randomized order and direction and the participants were asked to identify the direction of the center arrow only.

A schematic of the visual task presented (Albutelabi et al., 2011).

A schematic of the visual task presented (Albutelabi et al., 2011).

Here, the bilinguals required less ACC activity while still outperforming monolinguals in accuracy. These results show that bilinguals are more efficitvely and efficiently able to distinguish the direction of the center arrow surrounded by the swtiching stimuli.

I loved that this study incorporated both a language switching task and a non-verbal task, which shows that the two tasks were carried out by the brain in the same region and thereby lends credit to the idea that development of the ACC in the study of a second language has positive effects in other parts of our daily lives. However, I wish that Albutelabi et al. had used participants of varying degrees of proficiency to see if the bilingual advantage spans across any second language learner.

Independent of my improved ability to find the best pastry in Paris due to increased language proficiency, I hope that I will have gained a life-long advantage to greater health and mental acuity. Not only have Paris and my French studies given me a greater awareness and appreciation of the world, increased neuroplasticity will allow me to use these now more refined areas, giving me confidence to switch between subjects and focus in on information relevant to the task at hand. This will come in particularly useful in my pre-dental studies along with other future endeavors, as lifelong bilingual experience may serve as a major deterrent to the onset of age-related cognitive decline (Grogan et al., 2012).

I shadowed a French general dentist in the 11th arrondissement.

This semester, I shadowed a French general dentist in the 11th arrondissement.

As I end my time in this beautiful city, I will keep my experiences (and brand new brain) pour toujours.

~ Amy Yeh

References

Abutalebi J, Della Rosa PA, Green DW, Hernandez M, Scifo P, Keim R, Cappa SF, Costa A (2011) Bilingualism Tunes the Anterior Cingulate Cortex for Conflict Monitoring. Cerebral Cortex 22:2076–2086.

Bialystok, E., & Barac, R. (2013). The psycholinguistics of bilingualism. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Grogan A, Jones OP, Ali N, Crinion J, Orabona S, Mechias ML, Ramsden S, Green DW, Price CJ (2012). Structural correlates for lexical efficiency and number of languages in non-native speakers of English. Neuropsychologia 50(7): 1347-1352.

Stein M, Federspiel A, Koenig T, Wirth M, Strik W, Wiest R, Brandeis D, Dierks T (2010) Structural plasticity in the language system related to increased second language proficiency. Cortex 48:458-465.

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