Language overload!!

The moment I landed in Paris, I was excited to finally use the language that I had been learning for so many years, in a non-classroom setting. During the past few weeks, I have been using all the slang words I’ve learnt.

When I was a kid, my dad was responsible for talking to me in Hindi and my mom in English. If that wasn’t enough, every weekend for around five years, I attended classes at Alliance Française. I don’t even want to calculate how many hours that must add up to… As a kid, at times I dreaded going to these classes (sorry Mom, if you’re reading). But when I started pursuing French as my second major at Emory, I realized how useful it is to know so many languages. After spending these past few weeks in Paris, I was curious to better understand the impact of multilingualism on the brain.

Figure 1: Alliance Française in New Delhi, India – where I spent many, many hours…

Figure 2: Featuring me using my French skills to say “Non merçi” to all the vendors at Sacré Coeur in Paris

Since language is such a critical capability, it is not shocking that an increasing amount of research is being done on the neural substrates of language. The consensus is that there is no “one area” of the brain that is solely responsible for language. It may be helpful to gain a brief overview of the main parts of the brain involved in language. Two of the important brain areas involved in language are Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Broca’s area plays a critical role in speech production and Wernicke’s area in speech comprehension (Fujii et al., 2016).  However, these two areas not only “communicate” with each other through the arcuate fasciculus, but they also communicate with other areas in the left and right hemispheres of the brain (Fujii et al., 2016).

Figure 3: Important brain areas for language

But why is knowing multiple languages considered impressive? Apart from enabling communication with people across the world, does being multilingual actually have any positive neurological impact? One study suggested that there may in fact be a neural basis for the ability of “Lifelong bilingualism to maintain youthful cognitive control abilities in aging” (Gold et al., 2013). In this study, 110 participants were asked to engage in task-switching. Task-switching was used since it provides insight into how capable participants are of adjusting to changing stimuli (Gold et al., 2013). But what exactly was the task that the researchers used? Participants were shown objects very quickly in the center of a screen. If the object was blue, they had to respond with one button and if it was red, then with a different button (Gold et al., 2013).  Without any warning, the participants were then asked to react using the same buttons but while concentrating on the shape of the objects (Gold et al., 2013). The results suggested that older adult bilinguals had a decreased reaction time (RT), which means a faster response, than monolinguals when task-switching (Gold et al., 2013).

But how can we know what is going on in the brain while these participants are performing this task? And what do the results really mean? To answer these questions, participants were asked to perform this same task while fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) was performed. fMRI measures brain activity when a person is at rest, to analyze brain activity. The amount of activation of brain areas can be quantified using BOLD signal. A high BOLD signal can be seen when neuronal activity increases in a part of the brain, seen when there is an increase in the cerebral blood flow to that part of the brain (Gold et al., 2013). Similar to the younger adults, bilingual older adults performed better the monolinguals with evidence of less activation (lower BOLD response) in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (Gold et al., 2013).  These frontal brain regions play critical roles in decision making and “effortful processing” (Gold et al., 2013).  Therefore, less activation of these brain areas may suggest that the reason lifelong bilingualism may be advantageous is because cognitive control processing changes from effortful to “more automatic” (Gold et al., 2013). The authors claim that this provides evidence for increased “neural efficiency” and a “cognitive control advantage” in bilinguals (Gold et al., 2013). This “cognitive control advantage” may enable bilinguals to be better equipped to respond to changing environments and even diminish the possibility of age-related cognitive decline (Gold et al., 2013).

If bilingualism may protect from age-related declines in cognitive control processes why don’t we all just pick up some Rosetta Stone books now? I began to think back to a few years ago when my grandmother was trying to teach me to speak and write in Punjabi. I really tried very hard to learn the alphabet but with slim to no success, to my grandmother’s despair. So, could this mean that it actually becomes more difficult to learn a language as we got older? Researchers at MIT used a quiz to measure the grammatical ability of 670,000 people of various nationalities and ages (K. Hatshorne et al., 2018). The results of the study suggested that children were best at grammar learning and that learning a language before the age of 10 is the best way to attain native level proficiency (K. Hatshorne et al., 2018). I would highly recommend taking this quiz they used!

Figure 4: Quiz used by MIT researchers to assess grammatical ability

However, it seems that this is still a developing field of research. Some are leaning towards focusing on research that suggests that age can be a hindering factor in learning language, while others think that it may be worthwhile to investigate if foreign language training can be used as cognitive therapy for age-related cognitive decline, even if started later during adulthood (Pfenninger et al., 2018).

While we may still be investigating the neurological impacts of multilingualism, I can assure you that knowing more than one language will not only impress your future boss but will also help you (and everyone traveling with you J ), if you decide to study/spend time abroad!

References
Fujii, M., Maesawa, S., Ishiai, S., Iwami, K., Futamura, M., Saito, K. (2016). Neural Basis of Language: An Overview of An Evolving Model. Neurologia medico-chirurgica, 56(7), 379–386. doi:10.2176/nmc.ra.2016-0014

Gold, B. T., Kim, C., Johnson, N. F., Kryscio, R. J., Smith, C. D. (2013). Lifelong
bilingualism maintains neural efficiency for cognitive control in aging. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(2), 387–396. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3837-12.2013

K. Hartshorne, J., & B. Tenenbaum, J., Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for
second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition. 177. 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.04.007

Pfenninger, S. E., Polz, S. (2018). Foreign language learning in the third age: A pilot feasibility study on cognitive, socio-affective and linguistic drivers and benefits in relation to previous bilingualism of the learner. Journal of the European Second Language Association, 2(1), 1–13. DOI: http://doi.org/10.22599/jesla.36

Perani D, Farsad M, Ballarini T, Lubian F, Malpetti M, Fracchetti A, Magnani G, March A, Abutalebi J .(2017). The impact of bilingualism on brain reserve and metabolic connectivity in Alzheimer’s dementia. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 114:1690–1695.

Figure 1: Image of Alliance Francaise, New Delhi, India. Retrieved from https://lbb.in/delhi/alliance-francais-de-delhi/

Figure 2: Taken by me at Sacré Coeur in Paris

Figure 3: Parts of the brain that control speech. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Language-specific-areas-in-the-brain_fig1_317356553

Figure 4: Quiz used by MIT researchers to assess grammatical ability. Screenshot retrieved from http://archive.gameswithwords.org/WhichEnglish/

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