12 August 2013

How the brain learns languages – the case of bilinguals

The Brain

Here is a fascinating article about how the brain learns languages written by François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland. The article discusses:

” whether verbs and nouns in Chinese are represented in the same way in the brain as are their counterparts in English: verbs in the frontal region of the brain and nouns in the posterior region. The authors noted that verbs and nouns in Chinese do not contain grammatical markers as do similar words in English and other Western languages. In addition, many Chinese verbs can occur as subjects, and nouns as predicates. Finally, Chinese has a much higher number of ambiguous words than English that can be used either as a noun or a verb ……..

Having shown that very different languages, in this case English and Chinese, have different neural representations for nouns and verbs, the interesting question became: What about bilinguals who store and process these two languages?”

For bilingual speakers of Chinese and English who learned the languages early, “the researchers found that Chinese nouns and verbs involved activation of common brain areas (thus replicating the first study) whereas English verbs engaged many more regions than did English nouns.”

” bilingual learners may deal with word information of the two languages separately. Thus, when word class is an important marker during language development, as it is in English, early bilinguals will acquire this language-specific property. In sum, the bilingual brain is highly plastic.’

This turned out not to be the case for a group of Chinese who learned English after the age of 12:

“They too showed no significant differences in brain activation for nouns versus verbs in Chinese (once again replicating the earlier study) but, to the surprise of the researchers, they showed little neural differentiation of nouns and verbs in English, unlike the early bilinguals.”

However, the researchers “noted aspects of their data that seemed to show that with more linguistic exposure to English, and hence improved language proficiency, the late bilinguals may yet develop neural sensitivity to noun-verb differences in their second language.”

What this means is that the brain perceives these parts of speech differently in the two languages. This confirms my impression that a noun or verb or adjective in one language, may have a different function in another language.

In Chinese, for example, adjectives can behave like verbs. You can have the past tenses of adjectives.

“他老了. 他胖了. 她生气了.” etc. (“He has grown old. He has gotten fat. He got angry.”)

The fact that differences in the roles of parts of speech are not equally clearly delineated in all languages, is only one of the reasons why I remain skeptical about Chomsky’s universal grammar.

2 Comments

  1. Brunort6
    Posted August 13, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. However, what is not clear to me is if a late bilingual (a Chinese, for example) can acquire neural differenciation of nouns and verbs with enough exposure. According to the author, ” the late bilinguals may yet develop neural sensitivity to noun-verb differences in their second language”. Does “neural sensitivity” mean the same thing as complete neural differentiation of nouns and verbs?

  2. Michelle
    Posted August 13, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing. Another great article as always.

    Just a little bit to share:

    “他老了. 他胖了. 她生气了.” etc. (“He has grown old. He has gotten fat. He got angry.”)

    “她” is referring to a female as in “she” in English.

    Thanks.

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