Tag Archives: soccer

A freaking AWEsome game

You will never see a Korean father more excited than when South Korea is playing in the World Cup. In my family, I have a cousin who trained to be on the U-13 South Korean national soccer team (until he got injured, unfortunately) and a dad whose dream is to attend a World Cup game one day. Coming from this household, you can imagine my pure joy and excitement when we were entering the stadium to watch the Women’s World Cup match between the USA and Chile this past Sunday at Parc des Princes. Yes, my dad was extremely jealous. As soon as we entered the metro station, hundreds of people fashioned in red, white, and blue were jam packed into those cars. I could not stop smiling, and it was the best experience being surrounded by fans who love their country. For the U.S. fans, we were on cloud nine as the team was already leading 3-0 by halftime. But even we, the Americans, could not help but be amazed at Christiane Endler throughout the entire 90 minutes of the game.

The amazing view from our seats at Parc des Princes

Christiane Endler is the goalkeeper for the Chile team. Wearing her green Captain band proudly on her arm, Endler is the first woman to captain Chile at a World Cup. Endler played incredibly against the formidable US team, which attempted 26 shots at the goal starting from minute one. But after reading an NY Times article that our professor sent to us, I got chills. The story of this Chilean heroine who rose up and is leading a team that wasn’t even on the FIFA rankings three years ago was so moving and inspiring. Her story is awesome. I experienced goosebumps while reading this article, and I started to think about what goes on in the brain when we experience feelings of awe.

Christiane Endler being a beast (NY Times)

Awe is a unique emotion. It can be associated with both positive and negative experiences and can be triggered by a vast range of stimuli and events. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”. “Perceived vastness” meaning that we are experiencing something that seems greater than ourselves, and an experience that evokes a “need for accommodation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). We experience awe when we hear the swell of a symphony, watch the climactic battle in “Avengers: Endgame” in an IMAX theater, or watching Endler save shot after shot at a Women’s World Cup game! To examine what goes on in the brain when people experience awe, a study by Guan et al. was conducted to assess the neural correlates of dispositional, or naturally induced, awe.

Fourty-two university students were given a survey that was measured by the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), which assessed the extent to which the subjects experience emotions in their daily lives, one of which was awe. They would rank statements like “I often feel awe” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The researchers also used voxel-based morphology or VBM. Although this sounds complicated, simply put, VBM is an analysis technique that uses neuroimaging scans of the brain and compares it to a baseline template and then across subjects. Researchers use this method to examine neuroanatomical differences in the volume of different brain structures. In this case, they were looking at regional gray matter volume (rGMV), which consists of the brain’s nerve cell bodies. From the DPES scores and the brain images they acquired through VBM, the results indicated that the dispositional awe score was correlated with rGMV in several different brain regions:

  1. The first correlation was between rGMV and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This part of the brain is critical for adapting to sudden changes in the environment, early learning, and conscious attention (Allman et al., 2001; Shiota et al., 2017). The association between dispositional awe and the ACC could indicate that awe has an increased tendency to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge. Additionally, the experience of awe leads people to shift their awareness and attention from day-to-day problems and towards the bigger picture away from their own personal self.
  2. Next, there are correlations with the middle/posterior cingulate cortex (MCC/PCC). The MCC is involved with reward emotional processing (Bush et al., 2002) and the PCC is involved in assessing self-relevant information (Scherpiet et al., 2014). This correlation may indicate that dispositional awe is ultimately a reward-related emotional experience.
  3. Lastly, they found a correlation with the rGMV in the medial temporal gyrus (MTG). This area is widely involved in the detection of incongruity and socioemotional regulation (Bartolo et al., 2006). The MTG plays a crucial role in the detection and resolution of incongruity in the process of experiencing socioemotional awe.

These results suggest that individual differences in dispositional awe involve multiple brain regions related to attention, conscious self-regulation, cognitive control, and social emotion. This study is the first to provide evidence for the structural neural basis of individual differences in dispositional awe.

The brain areas that correlate with dispositional awe (Guan et al., 2018)

The authors could have strengthened their experiment by having a larger and more diverse sample size. Although the college student population is accessible, gaining data from a wider age range would make their findings more generalizable. However, the VBM method that the authors used was able to look at several different brain structures at once, which was able to provide a very comprehensive overview of which brain structures were affected and strengthened the researchers’ conclusion. Overall, it was fascinating to learn more about how our brain processes feelings of awe. It would be interesting to learn more about how our physiological responses, like goosebumps, also have a relationship to neural circuits in our brain, and if different external stimuli have different effects, i.e. our response to awe in music versus a sports match. Huge thank you to Dr. Frenzel who got us this opportunity to attend this AWEsome game. I cannot wait to experience more awe as we close out our final two weeks here in Paris!

Happy faces after the WIN!!!!


Allman, J. M., Hakeem, A., Erwin, J. M., Nimchinsky, E., and Hof, P. (2001). The anterior cingulate cortex. Ann. N Y Acad. Sci. 935, 107–117. doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-6632.2001.tb03476.x

Bartolo, A., Benuzzi, F., Nocetti, L., Baraldi, P., and Nichelli, P. (2006). Humor comprehension and appreciation: an FMRI study. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1789–1798. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1789

Bush, G., Vogt, B. A., Holmes, J., Dale, A. M., Greve, D., Jenike, M. A., et al. (2002). Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: a role in reward-based decision making. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 99, 523–528. doi: 10.1073/pnas.012470999

Keltner, D. J., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930302297

Guan F, Xiang Y, Chen O, Wang W, Chen J (2018) Neural basis of dispositional awe. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12:1-7

Scherpiet, S., Brühl, A. B., Opialla, S., Roth, L., Jäncke, L., and Herwig, U. (2014). Altered emotion processing circuits during the anticipation of emotional stimuli in women with borderline personality disorder. Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 264, 45–60. doi: 10.1007/s00406-013-0444-x

Shiota, M. N., Thrash, T. M., Danvers, A., and Dombrowski, J. T. (2017). Transcending the Self: Awe, Elevation and Inspiration. Available online at: http://www.psyarxiv.com/hkswj.

Smith R (2019) Chile Goalkeeper Equal to the Task, if Not to the Team. The New York TimesAvailable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/16/sports/christiane-endler-chile.html

Stars, Stripes, and the Sound of Music

When I played sports in high school, I was one of those people who would leave their headphones on until the last possible minute because I needed the music to focus. During warm-ups, if there was a song playing, I’d make sure to move to the beat or sing the lyrics to get in the right mentality. Music has always been something that I have connected to sports. This past Sunday, we had the wonderful opportunity to go see the US women’s soccer team play here in Paris for the FIFA World Cup. They won 3-0! Without a doubt, it was truly one of the highlights of the entire program! At the beginning, when the players first came onto the pitch, an upbeat song with a lot of bass reverberated in the stadium. The crowd went wild, and they were screaming their hearts out. Almost as if contagious, the soccer players also gained adrenaline listening to this song and they jumped to the beat as they were doing their last minute warm-ups. Whether it’s before or during the game, I decided to look into the impact of music on physical performance.

NBB students love cheering on the US!

Songs like “We are the Champions,” “All I do is win,” “Crazy Train,” and “We Will Rock You,” are commonly heard at sporting events. These songs raise the spirits of the crowd, but do they also help players perform better? Elvers and Steffens’ study set out to determine just that (2017). They had 150 participants complete a basketball task where they had to throw the ball into a funnel. They measured a lot of variables to be able to reach multiple conclusions. One of the hypotheses was that performance would be improved if the person listened to music beforehand. The results show that performance is only improved if the person was already good at the task and if the player had the option to choose the type of music. Since the soccer game was between professional athletes, we can assume that there’s a high chance that their performance could be improved with music. They also measured risk-taking behavior by letting the participants decide at what distance to shoot the ball from. Here, listening to any type of music made the participants more prone to choosing to shoot from further away. In professional soccer games, we never see the same plays over and over again, they are often taking risks in order to get the result they want. Could it be that the soccer players are listening to music and find that it gives them the motivation to take risks during the game?

When we look at the different brain regions that are activated while this process is occurring, we see that there is a connection between music and the premotor cortex. In a 2009 study, they had participants listen to music that they considered pleasurable and music that they considered non-pleasurable (Kornysheva et. al.). They scanned participants using fMRI and found that there was greater activation in both the ventral premotor cortex, an area of the brain involved with motor control, and cerebellar areas, often involved in balance and coordination, when they listened to music that they considered pleasurable versus listening to the non-pleasurable music. The brain actually adjusts to a certain tempo of music, and it can increase motor function, hence better performance. So, music not only impacts performance in the present, it also changes the brain responses for the future. If only we could have scanned the brains of the US team while they were playing to see if we would find that their premotor cortex had a greater activation after listening to that song heard all over the stadium.

The premotor cortex (PMC) and the cerebellum are both involved in music’s effect on sport performance.

Although there have been a considerable number of studies whose aim is to find the correlation between sports’ performance and music, there is still more research to be done. For example, how is it that these same songs played worldwide can elicit the same response from athletes who are all different. Is it their beat that makes them classics? Do they all cause people’s heart to start racing and adrenaline to rush through their veins? It would also be beneficial to look for possible detrimental effects of listening to music causing a decrease in performance.

In the meantime, let’s keep hoping that the music on full blast in the stadiums brings out the best from the US soccer team so that they can bring home a championship! I believe that we will win!

The U.S. planning their next move.


Elvers P., Steffens J. (2017). The sound of success: investigating cognitive and behavioral effects of motivational music in sports. Front. Psychol. 8:2026.

Kornysheva, K., von Cramon, D. Y., Jacobsen, T., and Schubotz, R. I. (2010). Tuning-in to the beat: aesthetic appreciation of musical rhythms correlates with a premotor activity boost. Hum. Brain Mapp. 31, 48–64.

Image 1: taken by Sarah Taha

Image 2: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Illusory-Hand-ownership-modified-after-Blanke-2012-The-main-brain-regions-that-are_fig20_283465205

Image 3: taken by me


The World Cup.  These three words are arguably the most popular in the world – well, maybe it’s “I love you”, but “The World Cup” is probably a close second.  Every four years, the most elite national soccer teams assemble to partake in a tournament viewed by billions worldwide.  It’s an event of immense magnitude, immeasurable spectacle, and the highest stakes in sports.  This year, the FIFA Women’s World Cup is being hosted by France, with multiple games in Paris!  Seeing as I live in the United States, where we haven’t yet fully embraced the beautiful game, it is a rare occurrence to attend high level soccer matches; so, a few days ago, when our class had the unbelievable experience of attending a group-stage match in the 2019 Women’s World Cup between the United States of America and Chile, I was over-the-moon excited.

Faces painted, ready for the game!!

The game did not disappoint, the United States dominated Chile, especially in the first half where they scored three goals, including a super-strike from veteran Carli Lloyd.  However, despite the beat down imposed upon the Chileans, the atmosphere remained lively.  Thunderous chants of “Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le, ¡Viva Chile!” clashed with shouts of “USA! USA! USA!” for the entire 90 minutes, and with every goal scored by the United States women, the thrill of ensuing victory became more intensely expressed on the players’ faces.

Amazing view to watch the United States take on Chile in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup

While the triumphant screams, hugs between teammates, and big smiles made their emotions evident on the surface, a more complicated biological phenomenon was occurring inside the bodies of the athletes.  In a recent study published in 2015, Drs. Kathleen Casto and David Edwards examined how levels of certain hormones fluctuated during different stages of competition in female soccer players (Casto and Edward, 2015).  Competition, at its heart, is a contest for social status driven by a desire to be superior to an opponent (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  This desire seems to be heavily linked with the neuroendocrine system – a physiological system in which the central nervous system regulates hormone production (Martin, 2001) –  and with three hormones in particular: testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol (Casto and Edward, 2015).  Both testosterone (Carré and Olmstead, 2015) and estradiol (Stanton and Schultheiss, 2007) are related with dominance motivation and aggressive behavior, while cortisol is related with stress (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004).

This study, conducted by Emory University researchers, analyzed salivary levels of testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol from the Emory University varsity women’s soccer team in five conditions: a baseline condition (three days before a match), before warming up for a match, shortly before the beginning of the match, immediately after the match, and 30 minutes after the match (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  In addition to comparing hormone levels during different parts of the match, levels during both a home game and an away game were analyzed to investigate whether playing in front of an opposing crowd influenced hormone levels (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

A figure depicting the change in hormone levels during different stages of a soccer match (Casto and Edwards, 2016)

When analyzing testosterone levels, the researchers found no significant difference between the athlete’s baseline levels and their levels before warming up (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  However, testosterone levels after completing a warm-up rose 22% from levels before the warm-up (p<0.001) during a home game and 32% (p<0.001) during an away game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Immediately following the conclusion of the game, testosterone levels were 19% (p=0.046) higher than during warm-ups at a home game and 18% (p=0.003) higher during an away game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  30 minutes after the game’s conclusion, testosterone levels dropped 16% for a home game (p<0.001) and 26% for an away game(p<0.001) (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

Like testosterone levels, cortisol levels also displayed variation during different stages of competition.  However, whereas testosterone levels continuously rose from before a warm-up to immediately after competition, cortisol levels were significantly elevated prior to warming up but did not significantly change after a warm-up (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Cortisol levels peaked immediately after the end of the match, where they were elevated 142% (p=0.001) after a warm-up during a home game and 131% after an away game (p=0.002) (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  30 minutes after a match’s end there were no significant changes in cortisol levels (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  I, for one, find this cortisol data especially surprising because, when I used to play sports, I remember feeling the most stressed immediately before a game, not during it, and, as cortisol is a stress hormone, I would have expected cortisol levels to be at their peak immediately preceding a game.  Estradiol also fluctuated throughout stages of competition, as its levels significantly increased both before and during a warmup (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  However, immediately after competition, estradiol levels significantly decreased and did not show any significant changes 30 minutes after the game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

Interestingly, when this study statistically compared hormone levels during a home game to those during an away game, there were no statistical differences (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Maybe home-field advantage is not that big of a deal after all.  Perhaps most surprising to me about this study though, was that the data did not show any significant differences in hormone levels when either winning or losing (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Another measurement I think the study could have taken for a potentially more in-depth analysis is hormone levels at half-time.  At half-time, players can rest for a few minutes to catch their breath, but, while resting, are getting coached by the manager to make adjustments in preparation for the second half.  Even though the players’ bodies are resting, their brains are still working hard in anticipation of the rest of the game, so it would be pertinent to study hormone levels at half-time.

Ultimately, the research by Casto and Edwards brings to light some fascinating and surprising conclusions about the neuroendocrine system’s activity during physical competition.  Now that I’ve learned a bit more about hormone fluctuation in athletes, I wonder how hormone levels in fans, such as myself, would change while watching a match.





Carré, J., & Olmstead, N. (2015). Social neuroendocrinology of human aggression: Examining the role of competition-induced testosterone dynamics. Neuroscience, 286, 171-186. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.11.029

Casto, K. V., & Edwards, D. A. (2015). Before, During, and After: How Phases of Competition Differentially Affect Testosterone, Cortisol, and Estradiol Levels in Women Athletes. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 2(1), 11-25. doi:10.1007/s40750-015-0028-2

Martin, J. V. (2001). Neuroendocrinology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (pp. 10585-10588). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/03420-3

Stanton, S. J., & Schultheiss, O. C. (2007). Basal and dynamic relationships between implicit power motivation and estradiol in women. Hormones and Behavior, 52(5), 571-580. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2007.07.002


What Happens to Olivier Giroud’s Brain after He Broke my Heart?

On Wednesday night, along with some friends, I went to the Mazet bar in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris to watch some soccer.

The Mozet (61 Rue Saint-André des Arts, 75006 Paris)

It was the night of Europa League final and two rivalries from London, Arsenal and Chelsea were facing each other. Being a huge Arsenal fan since middle school, I was very nervous about the game. Olivier Giroud, a French footballer who plays as a forward for Chelsea broke the deadlock after half time by scoring a header that ultimately led to Chelsea winning the Europa League this season. At the end of the game, I felt disappointed and miserable looking at the scoreboard, Chelsea 4 – 1 Arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

As an amateur soccer player myself, I know in order to score such a header, both power and precision during the impact with the ball are crucial. Though it may seem effortless when a professional footballer heads the ball, it is in fact quite painful for a non-athlete like me who do not know how to control a header well. Being a neuroscience student, this got me thinking that perhaps there are some negative consequences to the brains as these professional soccer players head the ball almost every single day, both on-pitch and off-pitch.

I first heard about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the 2015 movie starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu first found CTE in American football players when he performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002 (Omalu et al., 2005).

This disease has been observed in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma and symptoms include memory disturbances, behavioral and personality changes, parkinsonism and speech and gait abnormalities (McKee et al., 2009). Currently, CTE has been associated with several pathological hallmarks. One of them is neurofibrillary tangles of tau deposition, which is as a marker of Alzheimer’s Disease (McKee et al., 2009). In other words, the protein tau becomes abnormal and is now unable to carry out its normal job to facilitate forming microtubules (Kadavath et al., 2015), the “conveyor belt” of nerve cells.

So, does heading in soccer lead to this disease? This is a tough question to answer. The main reason is that CTE does not have a definite diagnosis prior to autopsy. Therefore, there is a very limited study sample to test this question and we have to rely heavily on case studies. One famous case was Brazilian captain and two-times FIFA world cup winner, Hilderaldo Bellini. With no history of concussion, he died at the age of 83 and examination by the doctor revealed widespread CTE (Grinberg et al., 2016).

Bellini has a statue at the entrance of Maracanã, one of the most important soccer stadiums in the world. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

One neuroimaging study has identified thinning of the cerebral cortex in former professional soccer players when compared against former non-contact athletes. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue of our brain and is involved heavily in memory, attention, perception, etc. (Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950). The authors have also found that thinning of the cortex was tied to how many times the players have headed the ball in their career. Cortical thinning was also related to a decrease in cognitive performance and hence concluded that maybe these “sub-concussive head impact” of headings in soccer are not so good at all (Koerte et al., 2016). However, one thing to note is that a self-report survey was used to obtain a rough estimate of how many times the players headed the ball in their career. As a result, the exact forces and the exact frequency of heading the ball were not considered (Koerte et al., 2016).

Prof Henrik Zetterberg is a world-leading expert in developing biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and whom my lab at Emory had the honor to collaborate in several studies. He did a study to look at the evidence in neurochemical fluctuations immediately after study participants head the balls. Results demonstrate that headings in soccer do not have a short-term biochemical sign of neuronal injury.  They have further suggested that the effect of heading in soccer seems to be quite different from that caused by head punches in boxing (Zetterberg et al., 2007).

After looking at a case study, an imaging study, and a neurochemical study, it seems that both positive and negative findings exist. A review of the current scientific literature demonstrates that the effects of heading the ball and connection to CTE remain inconclusive (Grinberg et al., 2016). Though there is evidence of a relationship between heading and abnormal brain structure, most data is still preliminary (Rodrigues, Lasmar, & Caramelli, 2016). As for now, it is not yet the right time to think about banning heading the ball completely in soccer. It’s a great part of this sport that as soccer fans we all love. However, I think the recommendation by the U.S. Youth Soccer is very valid. Only kids after age 10 should be taught heading and heading in game should be delayed until they have both the skill and physical maturity (Nitrini, 2017). If you are a parent ready to take your child to their soccer game this weekend, maybe consider this advice.


Grinberg, L. T., Anghinah, R., Nascimento, C. F., Amaro, E., Leite, R. P., Martin, M. d. G. M., . . . Nitrini, R. (2016). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Presenting as Alzheimer’s Disease in a Retired Soccer Player. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 54(1), 169-174. doi:10.3233/JAD-160312

Kadavath, H., Hofele, R. V., Biernat, J., Kumar, S., Tepper, K., Urlaub, H., . . . Zweckstetter, M. (2015). Tau stabilizes microtubules by binding at the interface between tubulin heterodimers. 112(24), 7501-7506. doi:10.1073/pnas.1504081112 %J Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Koerte, I. K., Mayinger, M., Muehlmann, M., Kaufmann, D., Lin, A. P., Steffinger, D., . . . Behavior. (2016). Cortical thinning in former professional soccer players. 10(3), 792-798. doi:10.1007/s11682-015-9442-0

McKee, A. C., Cantu, R. C., Nowinski, C. J., Hedley-Whyte, E. T., Gavett, B. E., Budson, A. E., . . . Stern, R. A. (2009). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy After Repetitive Head Injury. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, 68(7), 709-735. doi:10.1097/NEN.0b013e3181a9d503 %J Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology

Nitrini, R. (2017). Soccer (Football Association) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy: A short review and recommendation. Dementia & neuropsychologia, 11(3), 218-220. doi:10.1590/1980-57642016dn11-030002

Omalu, B. I., DeKosky, S. T., Minster, R. L., Kamboh, M. I., Hamilton, R. L., & Wecht, C. H. (2005). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player. Neurosurgery, 57(1), 128-134. doi:10.1227/01.NEU.0000163407.92769.ED %J Neurosurgery

Penfield, W., & Rasmussen, T. (1950). The cerebral cortex of man; a clinical study of localization of function. Oxford, England: Macmillan.

Rodrigues, A. C., Lasmar, R. P., & Caramelli, P. (2016). Effects of Soccer Heading on Brain Structure and Function. 7(38). doi:10.3389/fneur.2016.00038

Zetterberg, H., Jonsson, M., Rasulzada, A., Popa, C., Styrud, E., Hietala, M. A., . . . Blennow, K. (2007). No neurochemical evidence for brain injury caused by heading in soccer. British journal of sports medicine, 41(9), 574-577. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2007.037143

Images Citation

Regan, Michael (2019). Olivier Giroud of Chelsea scores his team’s first goal.    [Photograph], Retrieved 21:08, June 4, 2019, from https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/olivier-giroud-of-chelsea-scores-his-teams-first-goal-as-he-news-photo/1152484213

File:Estátua do Bellini2.jpg. (2017, December 31). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 21:08, June 4, 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Est%C3%A1tua_do_Bellini2.jpg&oldid=275670697.

Difficulties learning a new language? C’est la vie (That is life)

Dear friends,

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks filled with excitement and anxiety so I’m sorry for not keeping in touch. Not only is it my first time in France, but it is also my first time ever outside of the States! Expecting a huge culture shock upon my arrival, I was surprised when I realized that this would not be the case.

Au contraire, my immersion into the French culture and language has been relatively smooth. While I cannot say that French has become “très bien,” I did pick up some simple greetings. However, it does not help that most of the friends that I’ve made here also speak Dutch, so I probably learned more Dutch than French.

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French (actually Dutch).

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French Dutch.

Just the other day, we attended the Belgium vs. France soccer game. While it was such a great experience, I had no idea what was going on half of the time because I couldn’t understand the language! Fans screamed “Allez les Bleus!” or “Waar is da feestj?” while I confusedly looked around until joined in on the indistinct chanting.

Dressing up for the festivities!

On our way to the stadium via RER B!

I knew picking up a new language would be difficult, but I thought that it would be a bit easier than it truly is because of the complete immersion factor.

Map of Stade de France

Map of Stade de France

Despite my constant pestering and asking of “what are they saying” or “how do I say this in French, I find it difficult to remember words or even make the correct sounds. For example, “Stade de France,” or the French Stadium,” is pronounced “stad du frans,” but I find myself struggling to make the “du” sound; I have to actively think about the pronunciation of each word and constantly break down each syllable to even hope that I say anything correctly.

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Not surprisingly, the scientific literature behind my need to consciously think about what to say and my failure to quickly become proficient in this second language continuously grows. A recent study even found that specific areas of the brain activate in direct correlation to the amount of fluency in a second language (Shimada et al., 2015)! This study comprised of thirty Japanese-speaking adults with varying levels of spoken English proficiency. The researchers evaluated each individual’s proficiency level using the Versant English test, a short examination on language production and comprehension. The test contained simple tasks such as reading a sentence out loud or listening to a short story. During this examination, the participants laid inside an fMRI machine to determine their brain activation through measurements of blood flow.

Shimada et al. discovered that with higher fluency in this second language, activation of the left dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (dIFG) decreased and activation of the left posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTF) increased. They also concluded that the decreased dIFG activity reflected the decreased need to consciously think about how to create grammatically correct sentences, and the increased pSTF activity reflected the increased ability to quickly process and understand spoken words. (If you got lost reading the extremely long names of those brain structures, I labeled the dIFG red and the pSTF orange!)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

With this information, I am now wondering if it might be possible to induce those activation patterns in my brain to quickly become proficient in French! Maybe I should suggest this idea to the researchers for their next experiment! However, I feel as though I might be too scared to be a participant in such a novel study. Therefore, I am content with my traditional, but painstakingly slow, approach to learning French… for now.

Au revoir!

(P.S. I still cannot pronounce “au revoir” correctly…)



Shimada K, Hirotani M, Yokokawa H, Yoshida H, Makita K, Yamazaki-Murase
M, Tanabe HC, Sadato N (2015) Fluency-dependent cortical activation associated with speech production and comprehension in second language learners. Neuroscience.