Immersion Learning & Brain Growth: What Your Brain Looks Like When Speaking a Foreign Language

What happens in our brains when we speak a foreign language?

Do we think in that language?

Do our brains “Google translate” from our native tongue?

Through MRIs and electrophysiology, researchers took a look at the brain to see what visual effects manifest with foreign language learning.

They also analyzed what these effects can tell us about learning a language.

Brain Growth

In an article by Alison Mackey, an MRI study took a look at two groups: young military recruits with a propensity for language and a control group of medical and cognitive science students.

The language groups studied Dari, Arabic, and Russian, while the control group studied other intensive topics but not language.

Taking MRI scans of both the language students and the control group found that certain areas of the brain grew in size for the language group, while those of the control group did not.

Those in the language group who experienced more brain development in the hippocampus of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in learning and memory) demonstrated superior language skills to those who experienced more brain development in the motor region of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in speaking words).

The ease with which a language student learned, understood, and spoke the language saw a direct correlation with the areas of the brain that grew.

And brain development directly correlated to performance.

Immersion is Key

Another study, noted in an article by Guy Brockless on Bilingua, explored the inner workings of the brain via electrophysiology.

Completed by Professor Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois, the study used an artificial language to identify the differences in the brain’s function when experiencing immersion learning versus rule learning.

Both groups learned the language, but the immersion group learned it via processes similar to native speakers, which is ideal if your goal is native-like fluency.

Morgan-Short said about the study:

“This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Both studies inform our understanding of how our brains work when learning a second language.

They also indicate that while not all brains work or develop the same during the process, that data can allow language learners to tailor and customize the best methods of language learning for their own personal growth.

Second Language Learning Improves One’s Command of Native Language

Those who fluently speak a second language (or more) are gifted with the opportunity to communicate with many different people and cultures.

But that’s not all.

Studies have shown that learning a second language also improves one’s command over their native tongue.

We’ve examined how language is learned in infancy and, for the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed how second language learning can improve our cognitive learning and creativity.

While we’ve mainly looked at younger, elementary-school level students when analyzing the effects of second language learning, the positive impacts continue into adolescence and adulthood.

Let’s see what happens.

Greater Academic Success

A 1984 study by Robert Skelton examined the differences in academic achievement between college students who didn’t study a foreign language in high school and those who did.

Both groups of students had the same level of intelligence and the same socio-economic background.

And yet, the foreign language group showed superior academic achievement overall in college than those who had no foreign language experience.

The study concluded:

“Statistical analysis, reason, and the experience of generations force us to the conclusion that the study of foreign language does improve one’s command of his own language, thereby enhancing one’s control of subject matter in the fields in which language is the vehicle of instruction.”

Latin is Best

A further study by Patricia Davis Wiley, published in 1985, explored the same hypothesis and arrived at the same conclusion.

Wiley’s study, too, found a correlation between high school foreign language study and achievement in higher academia. 

High school students who studied Spanish, French, German, or Latin went on to perform better at a college level than their peers of equal academic ability.

In fact, those students who studied Latin proved to achieve the highest levels overall in college success, measured by GPA, and in freshman English grades specifically – possibly because over 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots.

A 2001 study by Amedeo D’Angiulli of Italian/English bilingual students, ranging from 9 to 13 years old, also showed higher word-reading and spelling skills than their monolingual counterparts.

Do all of these positive aspects of second language learning make you want to become bilingual?

We’ll talk about how to learn a new language next week.

Creativity and Cognitivity: How Learning A Second Language Boosts Your Brain

We all know that learning a second language opens up new avenues in your brain.

Learn French, and you’ll soon be turning the roundabout of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Attribution: Josh Hallett

Learn Spanish, and you’ll find yourself rambling down La Rambla.

Attribution: Jinx Vilhas

But how, exactly, does bilingualism influence your brain?

Last week, we saw the effects of second language learning on cognition.

This week, we’ll take a look at two additional studies that confirm that foreign language learning can make you a better learner and thinker.

Figural Creativity

A 1973 study by Richard G. Landry took a look at how learning a second language at the elementary school level can enhance figural creativity.

Landry hypothesized that when completing figural tasks – such as flexibility, originality, and creativity which rely on association, imagery, and other more abstract factors – second language learners have an edge over monolingual learners due to their flexibility in thinking. 

And his results confirmed this theory.

The study showed that the second language group scored significantly higher than the monolingual group on figural tasks, indicating that second language learning lends itself to divergent thinking to better complete these types of tasks.

Learning a second language at the elementary level also provided students with a broader range of linguistic and culturally rich resources which produces varied and fresh ideas.

The conclusion was that second language learning enables children to approach a problem differently, departing from traditional approaches more readily taken by monolingual students.

Cognitive & Language Development

Second language learning doesn’t just boost the creative mind.

A second study, completed in 1991 by Kathryn W. Bamford and Donald T. Mizokawa, examined the differences and degrees of nonverbal problem-solving and native language development between a monolingual classroom of second graders and an additive-bilingual Spanish-immersion classroom.

The study tested native language development between the two classrooms, measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-R, and found no significant differences, despite the bilingual group’s Spanish immersion.

However, there were significant differences in problem-solving between the two groups.

Using Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices, which is a nonverbal test that measures “fluid intelligence”  – or general human intelligence and abstract reasoning – the study found that the Spanish-immersion group had a significant edge over their monolingual peers.

The conclusion drawn:

“The superior control of cognitive processing demonstrated by children in the early stages of additive bilingualism may enhance symbolic reasoning abilities.”

This pair of studies indicate that second language learning can boost both your creative and cognitive thinking at the elementary level.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how these effects evolve in higher academia.

How Exposure to Foreign Language in Infancy Can Aid Phonetic Learning

Exposure to foreign language early on can aid future language learning.

As we explored last week, foreign language development declines rapidly after the first year of infancy.

This is when mind-mapping of language is set, and recognition of foreign sounds becomes “interference.”

But before a year, an infant’s mind can map foreign languages in a way that can help them identify foreign sounds.

In an experimental demonstration of phonetic learning, University of Washington neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl has found that American infants exposed to Mandarin Chinese were able to differentiate between its phonetic elements, but only through social interaction with a human.

The Experiment: “Chee” and “She” 

The Mandarin sounds, “chee” and “she,” are difficult for adult Americans to differentiate.

A pair of studies tested whether infants could distinguish between the two.

In the initial study and the first experiment of its kind, 9-month-old American infants were exposed to Mandarin for less than five hours in a laboratory setting.

Over the course of a dozen 25-minute sessions spanning four weeks, four native speakers – two women and two men – read children’s books in Mandarin and played with the children while speaking.

An English control group did the same.

The infants in the Mandarin group showed an ability to distinguish between the language’s sounds, much more so than those in the control group.

The Mandarin group’s ability to discern between “chee” and “she” was also shown to be equivalent to that of a group of Taiwanese infants exposed to Mandarin for ten months. 

The infants’ ability to differentiate between the sounds lasted for 12 days – and maybe longer, as Kuhl is currently retesting and analyzing months later.

This indicates that short-term exposure to foreign language in infancy can significantly improve foreign language speech perception and retention.

Socializing Companion Study

A companion study exposed a second group of American infants to Mandarin using audiotape and DVD.

The children in this study showed no ability to distinguish between the sounds, revealing that phonetic learning is better learned and retained through social exposure.

Audio and DVD did not offer the same stimulation as a live human. 

In a presentation of the studies’ findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kuhl said:

“The findings indicate that infants can extract phonetic information from first-time foreign-language exposure in a relatively short period of time at 9 months of age, but only if the language is produced by a human, suggesting that social interaction is an important component of language learning.”

Kuhl also notes that the 9-month period is a sensitive window for language learning, emphasizing the importance of timing.

She also highlighted other aspects of infant abilities in language learning, including:

“…their attraction to ‘motherese’ (a form of exaggerated speech) spoken by adults to babies; the statistical learning that infants engage in by analyzing language; and the ability to follow the gaze of another person to an object to understand what they are talking about.”

Early Language Mapping: How Infants Learn Pronunciation

Why do Americans struggle with differentiating between the “shee” (“west”) and “chee” (“wife”) sounds in Mandarin?

Why do the Japanese struggle with the “l” and “r” sounds in “lake” and “rake”?

University of Washington speech professor Patricia Kuhl has the answer.

Map-Building

Having studied early language development for nearly three decades, Kuhl has a better understanding than most of how and when pronunciation and accents develop.

Before a baby even speaks her first word, a pattern of speaking has formed in the brain, based on her primary caregiver’s speech.

With American, Japanese, Swedish, and Russian infant participants, Kuhl found that vowel and consonant sounds of both native and foreign languages are clearly recognized by children between 6 to 8 months. 

That means an American infant can recognize and respond to the differences in “shee” and “chee,” while the Japanese infant will differentiate between “l” and “r” just as easily as an American.

Head-Turn Study

Kuhl used a “head-turn” study to identify whether infants could recognize these sounds.

While distracting an infant with a toy, the speaker would repeat a sound over and over – “la, la, la,” for instance.

The infant would continue watching the toy until she would hear a different sound mixed in – “la, la, ra”  – which would then light up the toy.

In anticipation of the reward, two-thirds of both Japanese and American 6- to 8-month-old infants would turn to look at the toy when the sound changed.

That ability was lost by the time the child reached one year.

Using the same sounds, a little over half of Japanese infants and nearly four-fifths of Americans would turn to look at the toy by the time the infants had reached a year.

The study concluded that this is when native sounds become the baby’s norm.

Magnet Effect

A Smithsonian article by Edwin Kiester, Jr., throws this map-building into further relief, with Kuhl describing the mapping of the baby’s language brain:

“The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic.”

A “magnet effect” further maps the native language, as prototypical sounds are absorbed and interpreted as native, while foreign sounds are discarded as “interference.” 

And what of infants born in bilingual households?

Those infant brains simply draw multiple maps, which is made easier if a specific language is spoken in the pitch, tone, and pronunciation of either caregiver.

This is why foreign languages are difficult to learn into adulthood: your language brain has long been mapped, and it’s a struggle to tune into sounds your brain wiring perceives as “interference.”

But this does not mean it’s impossible.

We’ll talk about the possibility next week.

English as the Lingua Franca: Is Knowing English Enough to Succeed in Business?

English is the lingua franca – i.e., the common language often spoken when people of mixed native languages gather.

This might make native English speakers consider avoiding learning another language and falling back on their English competency.

While communication may no longer be the most important part of learning another language (see last week’s post), there are many reasons you should.

Here are a few…

The Lingua Franca Shifts

The ancient powers of Babylonia, Persia, and Assyria all spoke Aramaic.

The Hellenistic empire spoke Greek.

The Romans? They spoke Latin and so did other cultures outside their own, in order to communicate in a common language with the empirical power.

The Spanish and French languages have also held their own as the lingua franca during their empirical reigns.

This is why in many former colonies, Portuguese, French, and English often remain as official languages.

French was even the primary language in Britain for three centuries, with the motto, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), on the U.K.’s royal coat of arms still written in French.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world was learning Russian as a second language. The fall was a victory for the English language, as this shifted the paradigm.

English was only adopted as the unofficial universal language of business in the last century, which goes to show how this trend can – and, likely, will – naturally shift.

Considering countries like China are becoming important trading partners, making Mandarin a key language to learn, English may not continue to hold this position as universal language for long.

“English Light”

In his book, Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, Edward Trimnell provides another reason for broadening your linguistic skills.

He notes that “global English” is usually “English light,” meaning that oftentimes non-native speakers are minimally fluent and have not mastered the nuances of the language.

In order to negotiate with and sell to those who speak “English light,” language skills of your own are required.

The transition of global companies to communicating in various languages is prevalent in the shift of English web content over the years.

While in the late nineties, 90 percent of online content was in English, this has dropped to 25.9 percent as of 2020.

According to Trimnell, this is partially due to the mantra, “Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…” which is why international company websites are now available in dozens of languages.

Considering what we discussed with the Daewoo CEO last week, selling in a foreign language in a foreign market is clearly important, not only in regards to communication but also in demonstrating respect. 

The bottom line: the times are a’changing, and the skill of language learning should not be underestimated.

How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.

The Science Behind Learning a Second Language

Learning language, learning religion, and learning history are important to taking action in your own cultural integration. Of the three, learning language often requires the most drive and focus.

But when you’re a child, you seem to soak up language like a sponge. You don’t need that drive and focus to learn it.

The adult memory – or the lack thereof – is often blamed for this disparity. And the truth is the ability to retain information slows with age. Moreover, different languages have different sounds, which are easier to master at a young age, as the mouth is still forming and speech still developing.

However, though it’s a smart idea to become bilingual as a child, some of us don’t have that opportunity. That doesn’t mean that, as adults, we should pass off language learning as “too difficult.” Instead, we must take a leaf out of the child’s playbook and learn a language like children do.

Learning as a Child

An article published by Patricia K. Kuhl in the journal, Mind Brain Education, entitled “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education,” states that language learning in children is a highly social activity.

“There is evidence that children’s early mastery of language requires learning in a social context,” Kuhl writes. “Research shows that young children rely on what has been called ‘statistical learning,’ a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture. However, new data also indicate that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computations skills to learn from exposure to language.”

Believe it or not, this is the same thing adults need in order to learn a language quickly: a social setting and social interaction. Even more so, we need the confidence that a child does and the willingness to make mistakes.

This is the science behind learning a second language.

Do these rules really apply to adults, as well?

Learning as an Adult

Meet Benny, the Irish polygot.

He’s the author of Fluent in 3 Months and says that although he’s not inherited the so-called “language gene” and isn’t particularly gifted with languages, he’s been able to become fluent in seven languages, simply by having the confidence to speak.

Why?

Benny met a man in Spain who changed his life. In his own words: “He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

This is actually the secret to learning anything. Think about it: whether it was riding your bike, mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, weren’t you willing enough to just give it a go, even if you weren’t that confident in your abilities to begin with?

The self-described “fun-loving Irish guy and full-time globe trotter” has taught thousands of language learners his approach to becoming competent in a language quickly.

“My mission in life is giving people permission to make mistakes,” he says on his site. “The more mistakes you make, the faster you become a confident language learner.”

Science and practical application turn up the same results. The equation to language learning, whether young or old, is as simple as confidence + speaking + making mistakes = learning through exposure.

This month, my posts will offer resources, language learning sites, and advice on how to plug into this equation and get rolling on a new language.