Multilingualism and the Brain has  been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube Channel. This video originally aired on October 28th, 2013

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. I’m back from Montreal. I attended a conference there called the International Conference on Multilingualism: Linguistic Challenges and Neurocognitive Mechanisms. I attended the conference in the hope that it would provide me with some insights on language learning which I could use for my own language learning which we could introduce, perhaps, at LingQ. I will post, by the way, a link to the conference here because they are going to put up, I gather, full videos of all of the presentations so you can all participate, unless that’s somehow limited to people who were signed up. I don’t know, but I will post the link.


My conclusions: I didn’t learn much really that is relevant to language learning. I had a wonderful time, I enjoyed being in Montreal. Montreal is really amazingly bilingual, you see people in the street switching back and forth from English to French. If you’re in a restaurant or a bar, you have no idea if the person serving you is Anglophone or Francophone because they seem to speak both languages so freely. It’s quite a unique experience. I like downtown Montreal around McGill University and the different streets there.


The conference was sponsored by the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders of McGill University. The linguists and I guess the neuroscientists and people there were extremely nice, friendly and enthusiastic, so it was a wonderful two days. It was a whole new field for me. I spent the first day not understanding a lot of it because they were talking about N400 and P600. Do you know what N400 is? It’s a reaction in your brain after 400 milliseconds when you discover something that maybe shouldn’t be there or whatever. I’m not sure of the difference between an N400 and a P600, but these are things that these people measure.


I should add that there were presentations every half hour. There were a lot of presentations, in addition to which they had these poster sessions where people would put up posters describing the type of research they’d been doing and you could interact with them and ask them questions and so forth. So there was a massive amount of information, most of it having to do with very specific and very sort of detailed studies of some aspect of neurocognitive mechanisms. They measure how the brain reacts to certain stimulus, which could be something that’s correct or incorrect in speech and so forth. So it went into a lot of this kind of detail. I mean if I read here:


  • Morphological processing in late bilinguals
  • The role of language experience and the neurocognition of late-learned language: Bilingual L3A vs. monolingual L2A
  • Cross-linguistics syntactic priming in German-English bilinguals: The role of global and surface syntactic structure


It just goes on and on like this. You know, I guess I’m still trying to process this whole new world for me, but I was not the only one who was there who is not from this specific background and who felt it wasn’t very relevant to language learning. It’s a different world. I have to bear in mind that the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, a large part of their purpose is to train speech pathologists and people like that who help those people who have difficulties, auditory difficulties, speech difficulties and so forth and so it’s almost as if language learners were treated as some kind of a pathological case. They measured how the brain reacts and so forth and so on.


It was interesting talking to people because it was very easy to talk to people. Everybody was happy to talk to you about what they were doing or about anything in general. The attitude about language learning or the relevance of this to language learning, I would say that it varied from one person who felt that if language learners were taught linguistics that they would learn languages faster. This was very much a minority view.


A majority of people actually believed and I think it also came through in the presentations that, ultimately, language acquisition depends on exposure, which is not earth shattering really, and many people confirmed that there was this dichotomy between the kind of research that’s done and then the needs of the language acquisition community; although, theoretically, many of these people were involved in both areas.


So, for me, it was very exciting to be introduced to a new sort of discipline and I’m still sorting out what the relevance of this is to language learning. I’ll probably watch the videos again because first time through there’s a lot that I didn’t quite understand. One thing, by the way, I took a taxi in Montreal and the taxi driver was Italian, which I could tell by his accent in French so then we switched to Italian. He spoke French very fluently, but he spoke with a very heavy Italian accent. He’d been living in Montreal for 35 years; I think he was maybe in his mid 50s.


So what does that say? It just says that you can be exposed to the language and develop a high degree of fluency and yet not change your accent at all. Yet you can have someone that within a year or two, like Luca from Rome, who speaks French like a native. Is that talent? Is that will? It depends on, I guess, your goals, your motivation. I mean I came away, I guess, more confirmed than ever in the belief that language learning is all about what you what to do. It’s motivation, motivation, spending the time and, as I say, this ability to notice, which can be helped by studying grammar or interacting with a teacher, but that’s a small part. The big part is the motivation, the amount of time and the exposure to the language.


So details of what you do and so forth don’t matter and it doesn’t matter how old you are. This is something that came through in the conference, this sort of increasing awareness of the importance of this neuroplasticity that we have. A number of people also confirmed that these ideas of a universal grammar are, basically, fading out of favor as linguistics becomes more of a science of observation, experimentation and looking at how the brain actually reacts to different stimuli, different exposure to different forms of the language or different languages, rather than a linguistics that was based on some logical extrapolation a la Chomsky’s universal grammar.


Although, the defenders of the universal grammar continue to support it and claim that it’s constantly evolving; however, the fundamental tenets of universal grammar is that there is insufficient stimulus for a child to simply start speaking after two or three years, which suggests, at least to Chomsky, that therefore there must be some inherent ability to identify or to create language based on certain inherent grammatical rules. Whereas I think increasingly with this experimentation and so forth, at least a number of people that I spoke to agreed with me, that it’s, basically, the brain responding to stimulus the way it responds to other stimulus in forming rules and patterns to deal with it in the brain. But that’s about as far as I’m going to venture because I’m not really qualified to say much more.


So a pleasant experience, I’m not sure what it does for language learning or for my understanding of language learning, but I enjoyed myself. So thank you for listening, bye for now.