Biology of the language-learning brain

A lot of my friends are neuroscience majors so, out of curiosity and because I had some extra space in my schedule, I decided to take an intro-level behavioral neuroscience course this semester.


I have never experienced a class so frustratingly boring in my life.  And it’s a real pity because I know that neuroscience can and should be somewhat interesting (it’s the brain, for heaven’s sake) but… it’s not.

Except for today.


We started talking about language and cognition and of course my ears perked up because I’ve always had a fascination for the science behind learning a foreign language.  How does the brain comprehend new phonemes and new grammar structures?  Where and how does it form a new “dictionary”?  How does it affect other parts of behavior?  To what extent is language a learned behavior and to what extent is it innate?

If anyone else is interested in this topic, I suggest NOT taking a neuroscience class.  Instead, try perusing The Language Instinct by Harvard professor, cognitive scientist, and linguist Steven Pinker.  What an incredible book.  It ties language to science to psychology in a neat, seamless fashion.  (That book really deserves it’s own post.)

Anyway, our class is taught by an MD which means we approach language from a clinical point of view, basically by asking questions like – if you have a lesion in this particular part of the brain, what happens to your language ability, what happens to your understanding?  For example, damage to the frontal lobe of your brain may lead to Broca’s aphasia where the patient can comprehend and analyze everything that’s being said but cannot express language (either spoken or written).  This makes sense because the “Broca area” of the brain is involved in speech delivery.  On the other hand, damage to the temporal lobe may result in Wernicke’s aphasia, which is characterized by an ability to express language but not understanding.  The “Wernicke area” of the brain is responsible for retrieving correct, meaningful words so any lesions in this part of the brain results in nonsensical speech.  Interesting.

We also talked about something that’s probably more relevant to me and other readers of this blog – how multilingualism works.  Most people know that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn a new language.  Precisely, 8-11 years or younger.  And this is because of brain plasticity, or it’s ability to change as a result of one’s experience.  It’s truly incredible how plastic your brain can be at a young age.  For example, my five-year-old cousin can understand and speak the six different languages she’s exposed to on a daily basis – Marathi (her mom’s mother tongue), Hindi (her mom’s second language), Telugu (her dad’s mother tongue), Kannada (the local language where she lives), English (which she learns in school) and Tamil (her great-aunt’s second language).

Obviously when you know that many languages, your brain has to have specific areas where it stores these language “dictionaries” (i.e. the vocabulary and rules of the language that you have to remember).  Otherwise, you’d be randomly using words from the different languages when you speak.  What is fascinating is that if you learn multiple languages when you’re at a younger age (<8 y.o.), your language dictionaries are stored in the same part of your brain.  But when you learn them when you’re older, your brain is less plastic and your foreign language dictionaries are stored in a different part of your brain, away from your mother tongue dictionary!

Now, knowing that, what if someone has a stroke?  Stroke happens when certain parts of the brain don’t receive adequate blood supply and, if that part of the brain has to do with language, stroke may result in the inability to understand and/or formulate speech.  BUT!  What if you are bilingual and you have your language dictionaries stored in different parts of the brain?  Then, a stroke patient could potentially lose the ability to communicate in one language but be perfectly fine in another language!  (So it’s a stretch, but yes, there are health benefits to learning languages.^^)

My neuroscience professor insisted that it is very difficult for “normal” people to learn foreign languages once they are an adult.  According to him, because the adult brain is less plastic, it constantly translates the language it is learning back into its native language.  Well, I disagree.  I was like that with Korean at first, but now I feel like I can read and listen to Korean and understand in real-time.  I used to think that anyone who wanted to learn a language can sit down and do it, as long as they had the time and the will.  Turns out that success is not entirely dependent on the amount of effort put in.  Success in language-learning as an adult is in part determined by genetics.

You know polyglots, those geniuses who seem to pick up foreign languages as easily as they breathe?  Turns out that’s genetic as well.  My mom’s been saying this for years – my grandfather is a polyglot and she insisted that I got my language thing from him but it wasn’t until I heard it in class that I really believed it.  Turns out that it’s possible the Broca area of the brain might be organized differently in those who are polyglots and in those who are not.

Whew.  I could go on and on but I’ll stop now before I write a book.  As a scientist and an aspiring (?) polyglot, I just get so enthusiastic about the link between science and language.  Check out Steven Pinker’s book for more about this awesomeness!!  XD

6 thoughts on “Biology of the language-learning brain

  1. I was first introduced to the field of linguistics through Pinker’s book and also the ideas of Noam Chomsky and his arguments really seem logical – how learning languages is genetic and innate etc etc. But 2 years into my major, I’m no longer 100% convinced by their arguments. The evidence of brain studies are not as concrete as they seem and there so many other factors that can affect language acquisition – it’s no longer just about the brain and our innate abilities. ^^


  2. I would be really interested to find out whether most high-level (e.g. UN) simultaneous translators are bilingual in the languages they translate, or are they mostly polyglot genius types whove learned the languages in adulthood? I’ve heard the later is the case due to where language is stored in the brain. My experience is that young bi-linguals find it quite hard to translate and seem to focus on one of their languages at a time.


  3. Very interesting !!! I speak english, spanish, french, and italian …. I started learning languages at the age of 12 … today I can tell I’m fluent in the 4 languages I speak … it is just a passion form me !


  4. I started studying German about two years ago and French and Spanish about 6 months ago. After learning some basic structure and vocabulary I found that I did not translate back to English. I did not find it that hard to learn these languages, and I found that after starting with two more it was easier to learn three than it was one. It does help that the three that I have chosen are very similar in structure and vocabulary. As a matter of fact I am not sure this could be done as easy with say German, Cantonese, and Swahili. I am 56 years old. I agree that the young minds do learn easier but beside being “plastic” they have not yet been corrupted by a bunch of preconceived notions or ideas. Nobody has told them they can’t learn. How many times have we been told :you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. This, I think, is one of the reason learning at an older age is hard. If you tell someone something long enough they will believe it regardless of age. I, on the other hand refuse to believe this preconceived notion. I think learning anything, regardless of age, has to do with desire and commitment. If you are not willing to commit and/or do not have the desire, it does not matter what age you are.


  5. PS, I started learning as a way to exercise the noodle. They, whoever they are, keep telling us that brain exercise is as important as physical exercise. I also study mathematics and I am currently writing a fictional book based on happenings at the Idaho National Laboratory located in eastern Idaho.


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