Language and the Brain

Learning the first language appears to be a natural process however learning subsequent languages seems more complicated.  I have acquired 5 languages in the last 10 years and forgotten most of 2, yet learning Kiswahili was no less complicated than acquiring any of the others. Learning a language requires enormous effort and time. I learn other languages by teaching others my language. Together we can make lots of mistakes and continue learning.

Details of the neural mechanisms of language have been the most difficult of the brains functions to study. Most of the research on language acquisition and the brain has been done on birds and primates who have a more simplistic auditory communication system.  Some research has been done on brain-injured patients, hearing impaired children, downs syndrome children and the so-called “wild children”. (Kolb, Whishaw, 1985). I have conducted my own research on my brain and the process of acquiring a second language. What I have discovered is that the process of acquiring a second requires  lots of time and higher level thinking skills .

Learning a language starts in the brain with many theories about how this process occurs. Language acquisition, a  dynamic process derives from the integrated function of the whole brain. Complex tasks such as learning a second language require a greater number of regions and structures in the brain.

The primary language functions of the brain are located in broadly defined language zones in the left hemisphere especially the tertiary zone of the left temporal cortex. Lesser roles are played by the association cortex of the right hemisphere and by subcortical structures such as the basal ganglia and posterior thalomes. The corpus callosum is critical to linking the functions in the two hemispheres.

Locations  vary from person to person.  Damage to specific areas in the left cortical area of the brain results in the loss of certain aspects of language more so than a generalized language loss. Injury to the Broca’s area results in loss of syntax. Damage to the Wernickes Area results in a loss of meaning, though grammar remains intact (Gazzaniga, 1995).

Neither nature nor the brain fits easily into discrete boxes. Recent MRI & Pet studies as well as  clinical tests of language show that the ability to move the face and tongue in the sequence needed to produce certain speech sounds and the ability to hear and decode the same sounds are in the Broca’s area of the brain. This suggests that speech production and comprehension are not independent systems.

Normal language relies on a complex interaction among sensory integration and symbolic association; motor skills learned syntactic patterns and verbal memory (Kolb & Whishaw, 1985). When someone hears a word, Wernicke’s area receives the output from the primary auditory cortex. When the word is spoken, the pattern is transmitted from Wernicke’s area to the Broca’s area, where the articulatory force is aroused and passed on to the motor area that controls the movement of the muscles of speech. Some researchers feel that the right hemisphere is more active in learning a second language than in learning the first language and I agree. So learning a first and second language differentiates from other kinds of learning but may be different from learning each other. Lenneberg suggests that the matrix for language skills developed in the 1st language remains intact throughout life.  These facts suggest that  second language acquisition can be accomplished at any time.

 The universal ability of humans to communicate links us together into a powerful community by 44 distinct basic sounds (phonemes) that can be arranged into an infinite number of combinations. Language functions and locations  distributed throughout the brain  can vary significantly form one person to the next. The first language provides the linguistic context for second-language acquisition. So when I am learning Kiswahili, initially, I utilize the linguistic context of English.

Infants and Language acquisition

The timeline of language development in children is remarkably consistent across races, cultures and nationalities (Raley,2001)  Language acquisition starts before birth with the fetus getting attuned to the sounds of his mother’s speech in utero. Language acquisition is present at birth and environmental stimulus activates this genetic ability in order to learn words and grammar.  The laws of language acquisition are a universal part of a brains makeup applying equally to babies who speak and those who never hear a word. Babies consistency acquire language and learn words and grammar in the same timeline .

Human speech sounds are a subset of the potentially infinite range of possible sound forms. The limits of what our auditory system can hear and what our articulatory system can produce determines our sound formation.. Learners of second language begin by perceiving second language speech according to their native-language categories and then gradually shift their perceptual boundaries. So initially, one automatically pronounces the words in the second language based on the sounds in the primary language. Through subsequent practice one forms the habit of pronouncing the sounds in the target language.

The fetal brain’s language areas can accept all phonemes, but by 6 months in the womb the fetus is already beginning to group together sounds in terms of phonemes it hears in it mother’s speech.  The sounds is muffled by the uterus and the mother’s heart beat and only low frequencies register sufficient auditory information but research shows that   newborns prefer listening to speech in their own language.

A 6-month infant  groups phonemes in all sorts of combinations.  By10 months, infants group phonemes to form syllables that only correspond to the language of their environment. Infants under  6 months can distinguish all the sounds of all the languages in the world. They learn to select from the ones they hear and the others are lost. Infants can hear subtle differences between sounds that adults hear as identical.

When a child has learned the peculiarities of his language he begins to have some difficulty with the peculiarities of other languages. English speakers learn the irregular verbs of their language effortlessly, while German and French kids who learn English later struggle. German and French kids almost never have trouble with the constant switching of gender for nouns, while English speaking children who learn their language later may find it confusing. As time progresses adaptability decreases and the connections become permanent.  Language plasticity appears to diminsh as one ages but never completely disappears.

Most people fail to understand the second language acquisition process . The mature learner  initially uses the grammatical structure and sounds of the primary language . The speakers of the target language tend to overcorrect or at worst ridicule these initial attempts. Most mature learners of a second language become frustrated when not allowed to practice in a encouraging and trusting atmosphere which reinforces the stereotype that one can’t learn a language after a certain age. Language learners need to find a safe and trusting atmosphere to make mistakes in the language in order to improve.



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9 responses to “Language and the Brain

  1. Great post, Darleana! It´s so true. Neuroscience has elucidated the role of emotion in learning and memory. The amygdala regulate our emotional responses, which have the ability to either impede or enhance learning.

  2. Well, I’ve learnet English, Spanish and now I’m learning Italian, german and looking forward Swedish or Finnish, and when I make mistakes and people laugh, I don’t mind. As Aguilera’s had said; Words can’t bring us down…

  3. Swan

    Thank you for sharing your blog. It’s very interesting and worthwhile to read. I agree with you regarding “Language learners need to find a safe and trusting atmosphere to make mistakes in the language in order to improve.” I was fortunate to have a very supportive environment to learn English as my secondary language.

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