Left or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Are you a right-brain thinker? Or a left-brain thinker?

In other words, are you a creative, innovative type (right-brain)? Or are you logical and analytical (left-brain)?

And which side is a stronger language learner?

Never fear: both sides of the brain assist language learning, according to research. 

But to different degrees and in different ways.

Let’s see how.

Left Side Activated

The left hemisphere of the brain stores some 90 percent of our native language.

This is why it’s long been thought that left-brain thinkers may have a better capacity to learn a second language.

The left frontal lobe – specifically Broca’s area – activates the production and articulation of speech.

The left temporal lobe – specifically the Wernicke’s area – influences language comprehension and development.

This does not mean language learning only involves the left side of the brain; both sides work together in the learning and production of language.

Various parts of the brain are activated to degrees, depending on what aspect of language one is learning, whether it’s the lexicon (words), the sounds (phonology), or the syntax (grammar).

Speech

Studies have found that speaking a foreign language largely activates the left side of the brain.

A study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, of the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, looked at brain scans from Spanish speakers who were learning English or Basque.

Each group performed language tasks, involving reading, speaking, and listening in their native and foreign languages.

No matter the language level of the speaker, the left hemisphere of the brain was primarily activated during speaking tasks, while reading and listening were variable. 

Gurunandan explained:

“In the earliest stages of language learning the native and new languages tended to activate the same hemisphere, while in the more advanced learners they activated different hemispheres. And the switch from the same to the opposite hemispheres was largest in reading, it was slightly smaller in listening and it was non-existent in speaking.”

The researchers believe this left-brain focus during speech specifically is due to the specialized circuits in this hemisphere which control speech production.

The conclusion we draw here is that left-brain learners will have a greater propensity for learning how to speak a second language.

Next week, we’ll discuss where right-brain learners may have an edge.

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?

The Myth of Spanish King Ferdinand, the Lisping King & the True Gene-Culture Coevolution of Speech

There is a common myth in Spain that King Ferdinand was born with a lisp.

As the story goes, this speech impediment led to the Spanish pronunciation of “z” and “c” with the soft “th” sound, as Ferdinand’s courtiers imitated his lisp.

This Spanish pronunciation of “z” as “th” differs from the “z” as “s” spoken in western Spanish-speaking countries.

In reality, the “s” sound exists in the Spanish language; it is just not applied to “z” or “c” (the latter, when followed by “i” or “e”). 

Thus, it follows that the differences in pronunciation across Spanish-speaking cultures are not due to a lisping king, but rather to the natural regional differences that develop in living languages.

In the same way that American pronunciation of English varies from British pronunciation, peculiarities of living languages emerge across many groups, regions, countries, etc.

While King Ferdinand’s story is nothing but an urban legend, culture and genetics really do work together to create physiological differences related to speech.

Here’s how.

Genes & Culture Interact

Herbert Gintis’ paper titled, “Gene–culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality,” defines the gene-culture coevolution theory as follows:

“Gene–culture coevolution is the application of sociobiology, the general theory of the social organization of biological species, to humans—a species that transmits culture in a manner that leads to quantitative growth across generations.”

Cultural differences have produced changes in brain size, body size, and other aspects of human anatomy across the human species.

Last week, we talked about how genes and culture worked together to alter our diet – specifically, our ability to consume milk products – and how that ability varies across cultures according to their cultural history.

In the same way, gene-culture coevolution has symbiotically shaped human speech and communication.

Speech & Communication

Gintis goes on to explain how gene-culture coevolution is readily apparent in the physiological evolution of human speech and facial communication.

He writes that genetic alterations that improve speech are propagated due to the increasing importance human society places on communication. 

In early humans, speech production was facilitated by the evolution of regions in the motor cortex, including the adaptation of muscles and nerves in the tongue, larynx, and mouth that help produce speech.

Other physical attributes that have adapted over time in humans to improve speech include a low larynx in the throat, a shorter oral cavity, and the hypoglossal canal of the tongue, all of which both help produce sounds.

The Wernicke’s and Broca’s regions in the cerebral cortex are either absent or are very small in other primates; they’re large in humans, enabling comprehension and speech.

Human facial musculature is also more highly developed, allowing the eyes and lips to impart nonverbal communication.

Considering the development of these attributes that facilitate speech in humans, you can see that genes and culture have worked closely together to evolve the human species.

Next week, we’ll talk about how these physiological aspects of speech differ across cultures.