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.

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.

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.”

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.

From Mandarin to Italian, How Language Shapes Genetics

Can you differentiate Mandarin from French or Italian?

Of course, you can. 

The sounds of each of these languages are very different, from hard or soft consonants to long or short vowels.

Due to the dynamic sounds of each mother tongue, you can see the adaptation of different vocal tracts across cultures.

These adaptations have developed across generations according to the languages spoken in countries around the world.

We discussed gene-culture coevolution last week in relation to the human species and speech.

Now, let’s talk about how speech and language have evolved our genetics across cultures.

Physiological Traits Adapt to Language

Speech-related physiological adaptations vary across the human species according to the language spoken.

Some languages, like German or Arabic, require deep guttural sounds due to the harsh consonants.

Others, like Spanish, require speakers to roll their r’s.

One of the ways in which this presents in our physiology was reported by Discover Magazine.

Researchers found that the roof of the mouth differs across cultures, according to how vowel sounds are pronounced. 

Furthermore, these anatomical variations evolve upon each generation, creating an evolution in the language itself and the sounds of speech.

The study’s author, Linguistics Expert Dan Dediu, says, 

“Even small variations in the shape of our vocal tract may affect the way we speak, and this may even be amplified — across generations — to the level of differences between dialects and languages.”

The Study

How did researchers discern this change?

The study looked at over 100 people from several ethnolinguistic groups in Europe, North America, China, and across India.

MRI scans were taken of the hard palate of each participant.

Using the scans and machine learning, computer models formed a picture into the future of the hard palate and the sounds it might produce. 

Five commonly used vowel sounds – the “uh” in sofa,” the “ah” in “hot,” the “oo” in “boot,” the “a” in “bat,” and the long “e” in “feet” – were plugged into the computer model. 

A second generation, mimicking the sounds from the first, showed the amplified pronunciation of each sound – as did 50 generational models after it.

Though the change in the shape of the hard palate over time only impacted pronunciation slightly each generation, the change in the vowel sounds after 50 generations was much more pronounced.

The researchers write that,

“besides culture and environment, quantitative biological variation can be amplified, also influencing language.”

This research begs the question: what will our languages sound like in 50 generations…and how did they sound 50 generations ago?

Does Culture Drive Human Behavior More Than Genetics?

Biologists say that behavior is ultimately determined by natural selection.

This is because genetic structures are constructed according to the mental processes and learned patterns and responses to different environments.

As Richerson and Boyd, authors of Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, note: physiological changes that shape behavior are evolutionary.

Take bird migration, for instance.

Instead of passing winter in harsh environments, birds have acquired their migratory behavior according to evolutionary physiological reactions.

The brain has formed evolutionary strategies across time to send hormonal signals that trigger annual migration to warmer climates.

So, while genes may determine the traits and behaviors best suited to the environment, the environment has helped shape these genes. 

Where does culture come into play?

Culture is part of the environment, especially where humans are concerned.

Culture Drives Human Evolution

Taking the environment’s impact on evolution a step further, in a study by the University of Maine, culture was found to drive human evolution even more so than genetics.

According to the 2021 study by researchers, Tim Waring and Zach Wood, humans adapt to their environment and challenges in their environment via culture – in the form of learned knowledge, skills, and practices –more effectively and at a faster pace than through genetics.

One reason for this “special evolutionary transition” is that the cultural transfer of knowledge is flexible and fast when compared to genetic transfer.

Waring notes that:

“Gene transfer is rigid and limited to the genetic information of two parents, while cultural transmission is based on flexible human learning and effectively unlimited with the ability to make use of information from peers and experts far beyond parents.”

This results in a stronger adaptation via cultural evolution than genetic evolution allows.

The researchers also argue that culture’s group-oriented nature produces more group-oriented evolution as well.

Ways in Which Humans Have Evolved

How have humans evolved via culture?

Humans have adapted in several key ways over the millennia.

These include:

  • Capacity for social learning
  • Predisposition to be cooperative
  • Capacity to collaborate
  • Diminishing aggression

Genetics and culture work together to adapt behaviors, but as Waring and Wood’s research suggests, culture is becoming even more influential on the evolution of human behavior.

As Waring concludes:

“This research explains why humans are such a unique species…We are slowly becoming ever more cultural and ever less genetic.”

The Human Freedom Index: How Free Are You?

Nelson Mandela said,

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

How would you define freedom?

Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom defined it with a metric called the Human Freedom Index.

The Index measures freedoms using 76 indicators, rating countries from 0 to 10, economically and personally, with 10 being the most free.

Economic freedom, for instance, involves an individual’s ability to prosper without government intervention, the ability to make personal economic choices and compete in markets, the protection of personal property, etc.

Personal freedom includes freedom of expression, equality, freedom of movement, security, etc.

Averaging these two fields based on scores for each of these 76 indicators, the Index arrived at the base score for 162 countries.

The Indicators

History shows that human progress takes greater leaps and bounds through human freedom.

As Albert Einstein said,

“For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”

So, what human freedoms produce “great and inspiring” creations?

The Human Freedom Index suggests it’s such things as:

Using the most recent sufficient data available for each of these indicators, each nation was rated, averaging an overall score for the country.

The Scores

As you may have guessed, the nations that ranked as the freest are those whose cultural values emphasize personal freedom, many of which were democratic nations.

The top five countries in the 2019 Index were:

  • New Zealand 8.88
  • Switzerland 8.82
  • Hong Kong 8.81
  • Canada 8.65
  • Australia 8.62

The United States ranked 15th with a score of 8.46.

Those countries that ranked lowest tend to be totalitarian, one-party, or authoritarian states (or have historically been). 

The lowest ranked countries were:

  • Syria 3.79
  • Venezuela 3.80
  • Yemen 4.30
  • Sudan 4.32
  • Iraq 4.34

These data points can give you an idea of how you might fare in a foreign culture, based on your own culture’s relative freedoms.

Zookeepers Can Help

We’ve been talking about finding a Zookeeper to help you move in the world as an expat.

One of the reasons you might require one is if human freedoms are more or less restrictive in the country into which you’re expatriated.

Perhaps you’re moving from a country where you enjoy broad human freedom to one that’s restrictive – or vice versa.

The transition either way may be difficult. But having a Zookeeper can ease your integration and ensure you don’t do things wrong, impolite, taboo, or even unlawful.

9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

Religion’s Influence on Cultural Drinking Behaviors

Culture and religion are inevitably intertwined.

Today, we’ll discuss some studies that demonstrate this exchange.

Our first study comes out of America and Canada, in which researchers analyzed whether culture or religion more greatly influenced drinking behaviors.

Canadian Versus American Drinking Behaviors

Past studies had shown that drinking patterns amongst college students differed across countries. 

The difference in behaviors suggests that anything from a country’s public policies to their politics, values, or economy influences alcohol consumption levels and produces different alcohol-related problems within each country.

For example, one study showed that while more Canadian students drink alcohol than American students, heavy alcohol use (5+ drinks in a row for men / 4+ for women) was much more prevalent amongst Americans than Canadians in both past-year and past-week stats. 

41% of American students had drunk heavily within the past year versus 35% of Canadian students, and 54% of American students had drunk heavily within the past week compared to 42% of their Canadian counterparts.

One reason for this may be the drinking age disparity. In Canada, 18 (in some provinces) and 19 are legal drinking ages, while in the U.S., drinking is legal at 21. 

The study concluded that a student’s place of residence may also influence the difference in drinking behaviors:

“In our sample, 52% of Canadian college respondents lived off-campus with parents while only 15% of the US college respondents did so. Our study suggests that students who live off-campus with their parents are less likely to use alcohol and to be heavy alcohol drinkers in both countries.”

While this study identified different cultural drinking habits, researchers in the ‘90s wanted to delve into religious influence on those same habits.

Religious Influence on Drinking Habits

The drinking behaviors of non-abstinent Catholics, moderately abstinent Protestants, and abstinent Jews in both America and Canada were put under the microscope.

Researchers discovered that the absence or presence of conflicting values between the country’s culture and the religion’s drinking norms predicted the drinking habits of each group. 

For instance, the drinking habits of non-abstinent Catholics generally aligned with those of the country’s culture; however, the drinking habits between abstinent Canadian Jews and American Jews were the same, as most follow the religion’s strict law in lieu of the broader cultural drinking norms.

The study concludes:

“Among this sample it was concluded that religious norms have a greater influence in cohesive religious groups while cultural norms are more influential among less cohesive groups. The results also support the Canadian ‘Mosaic’ and American ‘Melting Pot’ assumption.”

This indicates that the norms of religious-based sub-cultures are more adherent to the group norms than national ones.

When Religious Norms Become National Culture

Religious norms regarding alcohol consumption can, at times, even imbed into the national culture.

It’s not unusual to see a glass of wine or pint of beer drank with lunch in a Catholic country, while abstinence from such habits would be the norm in a Protestant country. 

In fact, in the “Bible Belt” of America, which is predominantly Protestant, you may even see alcohol norms written into law. A number of counties in this region are “dry.”

In some parts of the world, drinking norms are legally bound, nationwide. For instance, some Islamic countries follow strict drinking norms (abstaining from alcohol) and expect outsiders to, as well. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there are laws enforcing such norms.

In such cases, adapting or adopting as an outsider is required, in order to avoid legal issues or imprisonment.

All of this is to say that a country’s dominant religion(s) influence the culture’s norms and values, whether an individual is a believer or not.

In order to understand the culture of a country, therefore, you must get to know the ideology and rules/laws of its religion(s). 

We’ll discuss how religion may imprint on business next week.