Saturday, February 03, 2007

Brains And Languages

Teri – I think it was teri, let me check; yes, teri wondered over at my review of The Power of Babel whether different families of languages operated in the brain in different ways. The short answer is “No, but…”

When people are using their first language, whether that be English, Hebrew, or Maori, the same parts of the brain light up. Sort of. There is some variation among individuals on this score, so we can’t definitively say there is no difference. There is enough similarity to give partial evidence for the Noam Chomsky-Steven Pinker view that there is some built-in language hardware in the brain. (The alternate view is that the very versatile and protean brain is less specialized than that, and could be used for a thousand different things, but we all happen to use language.)

Beyond that, however, things get very interesting. Different parts of the brain light up when we are speaking, hearing, reading, or writing, even in the same language. Words set to music are stored differently. Memorized pieces are stored differently. Sign language is stored and used differently. Not completely or radically differently for any of these, (there is always overlap) but enough to be quite certain that different processes are being engaged.

If you are bilingual from early childhood, you store things differently. If you add in a language (or two) a little later but before puberty, however, it will not only store in a different way, but will “move” the first language somewhat. Languages learned after puberty are each stored in a different strip of Broca’s area.

Edward Sapir, an early 20th C linguist, believed that the language you speak conditions your view of reality. You may have seen reference to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or the book Language, Thought, and Reality in school. Same guy. Sapir was fascinated by the very different way that verbs are used in the Hopi language, and believed that being taught Hopi, especially as a first language, allowed one to understand some advanced physics concepts more easily than speakers of European languages could. This showed up in the 80’s as a pop-psych idea that people experienced understanding information differently, and that this revealed itself in language. Those who said “I see what you mean” were different from those who said “I hear what you are driving at” or “I follow what you are saying.” A charming idea, but one that has not been borne out by any research.

The Russian Alexander Luria, founder of neuropsychology, studied memory, brain injuries, and aphasia in an attempt to understand language and the brain in the era before there were any of the brain-scanning techniques we use today. If you have read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, he records many of Luria’s cases and observations.

If you are interested in following this further, you can type “bilingual brain,” “aphasia,” or “psycholinguistics” into a search engine. Big names to watch for are Dahaene, Obler & Albert, and Kotik-Friedgut. As to the original question, it is Kotik-Friedgut who remarked that people who are bilingual seem to fall entirely within one of two camps, with no middle ground: those who perceive that they are a different “person” or “aspect” when speaking each language, and those who find the idea bizarre and foolish.

Links: Lighter fare: Uwashington ,Dartmouth , New Scientist , Lc Media

Journal articles: Oxford Journal, Oxford Journal, TC Library, Cambridge

Discussions:  Kotik-Friedgut ,  Kotik-Friedgut


Anonymous said...

I don't know that this is even related but in my mind the article begs the question of, What do you think of NLP?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was intrigued by neurolinguistic programming when it first appeared on the scene in the 80's. It sounded like it should work. Since that time, no evidence has come up suggesting that it does.

terri said...'s terri, not teri. ;-)
I only say that because I actually saw someone named teri comment on your blog before.

Interesting post. I had just read a science article about bilingualism and delayed onset of dementia. Apparently, speaking multiple languages, consistently from childhood, delays the onset of dementia by about four years, on average. The impact of multiple languages seems to offer some extra "brain protection." While not directly related to the post, I do find it intriguing.

I have another brain question I would love to ask, but it's not related to this vein of posts or language. I don't want to assign you any more posts, so I will refrain.