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.

Does Learning Another Language Make You Smarter? Learn Here.

Not only is bilingualism or polyglotism beneficial to cross-cultural relations and integration into a foreign culture, but early language learning has also been shown to boost cognitive abilities across the board.

These past two weeks, we’ve discussed how language is learned through mind-mapping as early as infancy. We’ve also talked about how early foreign language learning can aid phonetic recognition.

But this isn’t the only benefit of learning a foreign language.

Studies show that the cognitive skills of elementary school children are improved by foreign language learning.

While intelligence and cognition aren’t one and the same, they are related and integrated.

Let’s see how.

The Ross Test

The Ross Test is used to analyze abstract and critical thinking skills.

Often, children who are thought to be “gifted” are evaluated using the Ross Test to screen them for inclusion in gifted programs. 

This was one of the tests used in a study by Foster, K. M., & Reeves, C. K., to evaluate the cognitive abilities of foreign language students.

The Study: Cognitive & Metacognitive Processes

The cognitive and metacognitive processes of students learning French as a foreign language in elementary school were measured and analyzed over a two-year period. 

Cognitive abilities are described by sharpbrains as:

“the brain-based skills and mental processes needed to carry out any task; [they] have to do with the mechanisms of how you learn, remember, and pay attention.”

Metacognition is the knowledge of one’s own cognitive processes.

With one 25-student control group that had no French instruction and three French-language groups, studying in the program for varying lengths of time, the study identified how foreign language learning might impact cognitive and metacognitive functions in each group. 

Each French group received a half-hour of French language instruction following a half-hour of English basal reading daily, while the control group simply read in English for an hour.

The Results

Across the board, the foreign language groups scored significantly higher on the Ross Test, including the score of all of its cognitive functions, than did the control group. They also scored higher on Butterfly and Moths test.

Even more impressive is that the foreign language students excelled at evaluation tasks, which, in Bloom’s taxonomy, is one of the highest cognitive skills, just behind “creating.”

Those French language students who studied for the longest time period (24.5 months) also performed the best, while the scores of those who studied for 15.5 months and 6.5 months correlated linearly with that trend.

So, does early foreign language learning make you smarter?

Not directly.

But this study indicates learning a foreign language can give you the cognitive tools to be a better learner in general.

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.

Affected Accents: From RP to Mid-Atlantic, Does an Accent Indicate Your Social Class?

If you want to climb the social ladder, you’d better develop the accent for it.

All kidding aside, accents often suggest a certain social class and give the – wink – to those in yours.

Thing Gatsby’s affected British accent in The Great Gatsby.

In Great Britain itself, accents have long been a way to differentiate between the aristocracy and those of the working-class population.

Inference in Accents

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his book, Pygmalion

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Through accent and dialect, a listener can infer several things:

  • Where the person is from
  • What his social standing is
  • His general background

And when you can infer things about a person, prejudices or stereotypes associated with those inferences might move you to pass judgment based solely on the way someone speaks.

Received Pronunciation & Mid-Atlantic Accents

Regional accents in Great Britain were quite static up until the late 20th century, because many English people were working class and couldn’t afford to travel.

Their isolation forged broad regional accents and dialects, like Cockney and Brummie.

However, those who belonged to the upper echelons of society – the aristocracy and noble classes – had the opportunity to move freely…to a point.

They were mainly mixing with only those of their own social class.

This created a distinct neutral accent called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is largely spoken by Westminster politicians.

The U.S. – or, more specifically, the Golden Age of Hollywood – comparatively produced the Mid-Atlantic accent.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are well-known speakers of it: an affected accent that nobody actually speaks, named for the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where nobody actually lives.

Similarly, RP became an affected social accent used at prestigious schools and universities in the 19th century, so much so that it is said to be the native accent for about 3 percent of the UK’s current population.

Like the Mid-Atlantic accent, the “r” sound is dropped, conveying a sense of refinement and wealth.

Order becomes “awdah.”

Work becomes “wuhk.”

RP also splits off into various distinct accents based on certain social categories.

Mainstream RP is commonly used by BBC journalists, for instance.

Conservative RP is used by the aristocracy and older generations.

Contemporary RP is used by younger generations and is similar to Estuary English (spoken in southeast England’s Home Counties region).

Because the upper social classes largely socialize with only each other, their accents were allowed to grow in isolation from regional accents and dialects. 

Brummie vs. Cockney: Differences in Dynamic Dialects

If you speak English, you might think Brits sound “posher” than Americans.

Many Americans think so.

There’s a certain air of authority and sophistication in what one might term the “British accent.”

But funnily enough, the umbrella term we use for the “British accent” is basically the Queen’s English.

There are dozens of regional British accents and dialects within the language, all very different from one another.

Last week, we talked about the rhyming slang of the working-class Cockney dialect.

This week, let’s explore its West Midland cousin: Brummie.

Birmingham Brummie

The term, Brummie, comes from the city of Brummagem, which was founded in the UK in 600 AD.

Although the city later became known as Birmingham, the name is commonly shortened to Brum, and locals are known as Brummies.

What’s It Sound Like

If you hear the Brummie accent in Birmingham, you might think, “Oy kwoyt loik it.”

But you might be alone in that.

If you’re trying to conjure up the Brummie accent without audio, possibly the most famous Brummie is Ozzy Osbourne.

Brummies are often portrayed in media as being daft or slow.

While there was a similar stigma for East Enders, there is a certain appeal to the Cockney accent amongst the Brits.

For many, the Brummie dialect does not carry with it that same charm.

James Kenny of Owlcation writes, 

“Of all the accents and dialects spoken around the British Isles, none attract as much scorn as the Brummie accent…Quite why this is, I’m not quite sure, but then again I am a Brummie myself, and therefore to my ears Brummie sounds wonderful.”

How Does Brummie Differ From Cockney & Scouse

While Cockney is known for its rhyming slang, Brummie is better known for its accent in the form of ending sentences in a downbeat.

This is in direct opposition to the Scouse accent of Liverpool, where the intonation rises in pitch.

Another unique aspect of Brummie is its monotonous tone and nonexistent aural variation. 

In comparison, Cockney is more upbeat in tone.

Brummie Slang

Just like any dialect, Brummie also has its own slang.

Some examples:

  • To say yes, you might utter “ar”
  • When complaining, you are “aggin’”
  • If you’re clumsy, you might be “cack-handed”
  • When you’re trying to flee the coppers, you’d be “legging it”
  • If you’re wearing a flat cap of the early 20th century Birmingham gang, you’re wearing a “peaky blinder” (yes, like the show)

These are just some of many terms that make up the Brummie “code.”

Next week, we’ll talk more about stereotypes related to dialects and accents.

Cockney Code: The Rough-and-Fast Rules of a Dialect

From “taking the mickey” to “making Barney Rubble,” the key to understanding dialects is to crack the code.

Some are more difficult to crack than others.

We’ve talked about how dialects formed across the UK, mostly due to its long history and isolation.

So, let’s take a look at how one might decode these complex dialects.

Cockney Rhyming Slang

One of the most commonly known English dialects, Cockney, is spoken by working-class Londoners, most often from the city’s East End – specifically within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.

The dialect of Cockney is born of rhyming slang, a tradition believed to have originated in a criminal code used to fool the police or to keep customers out of the loop in the mid-19th century.

How does this rhyming slang work?

Random nouns are replaced with the odd words of common expressions. The expressions use words that rhyme with the original noun.

Some examples:

  • “Use your head” becomes “use your loaf” (“head” rhymes with “bread,” as in “loaf of bread”)
  • “I’m going upstairs” becomes “I’m going up the apples” (“stairs” rhymes with “pears,” as in “apples and pears”)
  • “Here’s your wife” becomes “Here’s your trouble” (“wife” rhymes with “strife,” as in “trouble and strife”)
  • “Give me some money” becomes “give me some bread” (“money” rhymes with “honey,” as in “bread and honey”)

Outliers in the Code

There is no end to the quirks of the Cockney dialect.

Some phrases don’t omit the rhyming word; instead, the entire phrase is used. For instance, in the case: 

  • “Would you believe it?” becomes “Would you Adam and Eve it?” (“believe” rhymes with “Eve”)

Other rhyming slang can also use obscure expressions, making the code even more difficult to crack. For instance, in the case:

  • “Having an egg” becomes “having a borrow and beg” (an expression that was renewed during WWII food rationing)

“New Cockney” even incorporates pop culture figures into the language, in the case:

  • “Christian Slater” standing in for “later” or “Sweeney Todd” is slang for a London police force unit known as “the Flying Squad.”

As you can see, unless you know the “code,” you’ll find yourself hard put to communicate in Cockney.

And British dialects in the English language split off even further.

Next week, we’ll look at how the dialect differentiates from Brummie and Geordie.

British English, American English, Antarctic English: How Do Accents Develop?

A group of British researchers spent months alone on the isolated continent of Antarctica.

There, an acoustic analysis was made of their speech characteristics as individuals.

In a matter of months, changes were observed.

The acoustical study created a computational model based partially on a common accent in Antarctica to predict the phonetic changes they expected to hear from this group’s prolonged isolation.

Recorded productions of the participating individuals were then taken and compared to the model.

In some ways, the model predicted the phonetic changes in the individuals’ accents.

Published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the results suggest that the initial stages of phonetic changes in accent occur incrementally when individuals in isolation interact.

Let’s delve deeper into this example of how accents and phonetics develop across the same language.

Shared Spoken Idiosyncrasies

Defining a spoken accent as “shared spoken idiosyncrasies across a community of speakers,” the study touches upon theories regarding potential evolutionary reasoning behind the development of accents.

Some evolutionists theorize that, due to its difficulty in imitation by outsiders, the function of an accent can allow the in-group to identify imposters, while simultaneously breeding cooperation, coordination, and camaraderie amongst individuals with the same accent.

Children are more apt at developing accents than adults, because the phonetic specifications are highly dependent on precise timing and vocal organ coordination, which is more easily acquired at a younger age.

How Accents Form

In this study, communication density was identified as the primary catalyst for accent formation.

This means that who you talk to and how often you talk to them can influence the early stages of accent formation.

The Antarctic researchers’ unique position of isolation created an environment resembling a microcosm of a former colonial settlement.

There was little-to-no communication with outside groups and yet regular communication with each other.

Being inside this bubble amplified the results.

BrainStuff’s Laurie L. Dove notes that the two primary factors influencing accent are isolation and human nature.

Dove writes,

“Human nature, vague as it sounds, simply refers to our innate love of being in groups. When a human is part of a crowd, they identify membership by wearing certain styles of clothing or eating specific foods. That group of people also may speak a certain way — so distinctly so that an accent becomes part of the group’s identity.”

What else impacts accent formation?

Next week, we’ll talk about social class, migration, and invasion.

Slava Ukraini: Glory to Ukraine and Its Culture

Considering current events, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate Ukraine, its culture, and its people.

The country, currently under siege by its much larger neighbor, has been independent since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukrainians are fiercely proud of their culture and independence.

From the ancient monasteries of Kyiv to the bright, cheery sunflower fields that are represented in their national flag, Ukraine is a country with a rich and unique history – one that most folks likely don’t know much about.

This dedicated post will provide a short summary of pieces – or sunflower petals – of Ukrainian culture.

Language

Language has been a talking point in Ukraine for years and for good reason.

Oblasts in the East speak Russian, those in the West speak Ukrainian.

And those in some central oblasts speak a combination of both, called Surzhyk.

The language divide is due to the East’s proximity to Russia and the country’s historical ties with its neighbor.

While both languages use Cyrillic, the Ukrainian alphabet has the letters – “Ґ ґ,” “Є є,” “Ї ї,” and “І і” – while the Russian alphabet does not; and the Russian alphabet has the letters – “ы,” “Ё ё,” and “ъ” – while the Ukrainian alphabet does not. 

The languages are similar in grammar and vocalization, but the Ukrainian language is actually more closely related to its northern neighbor, Poland, when it comes to vocabulary.

Many who live in Ukraine are of Russian descent, with 17.3 percent of the population identifying as ethnically Russian in 2001.

Thus, since Crimea was annexed in 2014 and the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk became occupied territories, language has become a hot-button issue in Ukrainian politics.

Traditions and Customs

Some of the country’s brightest traditions and customs come in the form of celebration.

Image credit: Jolanta Dyr from Pixabay

As mentioned, the colors of the Ukrainian flag represent the vast sunflower fields and the brilliant blue skies that paint the countryside – a true sight to behold.

Public domain

Traditional dress includes the vyshyvanka, an embroidered shirt. 

Often featuring black, white, and red thread, the embroidery design is specific to Ukrainian folk costumes.

Image by Yevhen Paramonov from Pixabay

The famous Ukrainian decorated egg, the pysanka (derived from the word for “to write” or “to inscribe”), is made around Easter. 

Every pattern, detail, and coloring of the painted eggs means something.

And, according to legend, if the painting of the pysanka ceases, so does the world’s existence, as evil will overrun the world.

Slava Ukraini: Glory to Ukraine

“Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom”

“Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.

We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.”

These are the lyrics to the Ukrainian national anthem, translated.

The phrase you may be hearing frequently, “Slava Ukraini,” means “Glory to Ukraine.”

As this country continues to fight for its life, I hope every one of us watching can celebrate the great character and pride of its people.