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Going Multilingo

The genius and the failure. Why learning languages is torture to some and a walkover for others. Is your brain up to the challenge?

For ten minutes you’re explaining to the receptionist that your shower curtain needs replacing. You still mix up clumsy gestures with ready-made phrasebook formulas when your girlfriend comes to the rescue. In three irritating, perfect sentences, she sorts it out... again. The same frustrating story repeats throughout the holidays. Whilst you labour to put together replies of more than two words, she has befriended the entire holiday resort and her language skills have risen to a whole new level. This is so unfair, you cry. It undoubtedly must be due to that string of dreadful teachers you endured throughout your school years. Or is it because your parents could never afford to send you on those language exchanges?

„At the end of the day, maybe I am a failure at languages?”

Is there such a thing as innately talented or untalented people? Katrien Mondt, a linguist at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, believes that any motivated student can learn a language if the circumstances are right—in particular if the environment is favourable and allows the language to be employed frequently. Take, for instance, adopted or immigrant children: most if not all acquire near-native skills. But why do some adults, despite being immersed in the same environment, struggle to acquire a second language, while your girlfriend finds it dead easy? Michael W. L. Chee, at the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab of Singapore Health Services, believes that ‘phonological working memory’ (PWM) could be a determining answer. PWM describes a short-term capacity system that allows us to store and repeat new, unfamiliar sounds. In contrast, permanent, familiar sound patterns are stored in our long-term memory. PWM is located in several areas of the brain—for instance, the area responsible for rehearsing sounds without pronouncing them can be found in the ‘Broca’s area’ and the phonological storage area in the left inferior parietal cortex. According to Chee, the larger your PWM capacity is, the easier you’ll find the development of a vocabulary base, and in turn, your foreign language acquisition. Yet, it is hard to tell whether a large PWM is consequence or cause of easy bilingualism and this theory is criticised by other researchers in the field. It can only be part of the explanation, as a number of intricate factors are at play: whatever your ‘talent’, motivation and usage, among other things, are also key.

„I don’t know how large my phonological working memory is, but I know my dad says I should be grateful for his talent, which he sees as a hereditary gift.”

Obviously, genetic factors must be involved in language learning the same way they influence our entire development. These factors function in combination with what is referred to as our ‘environment’, i.e. the elements that surround us at different points: our culture, our exposure to the language, and others. Not only your parents’ knack for languages but also their attitude to foreign cultures are partly responsible for your language abilities.

„Anyway, it’s surely too late now?”

To cut a long story short, no, it isn’t too late for you. In principle, anyone can learn a foreign language at any age. Much has been debated towards the idea of a cut-off age, after which children cannot acquire a good command of a language. The end of this ‘critical’ or ‘sensitive period’ is controversial, though. Some scientists see the age of 6 or 7 years to be the turning point, while others identify puberty as the defining moment. All in all, “this idea is now obsolete for most psycholinguists,” says Philippe Mousty, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. “There is no such thing as a brutal change in performance level at a certain point in life. What we see is a gradual, continuous decline in language learning abilities with age,” Mousty continues. In short: the earlier you start, the easier, but it’s never too late to begin.

„Fair enough. Maybe I could learn that language. But there’s no way I’ll get the right accent.”

The later you start learning a foreign language, the stronger your accent will remain. Our brain keeps maturing from birth onward; for instance, the location of a particular function can shift from one area of the brain to another to recover after a trauma, or as a consequence of repeated learning. This plasticity allows us to learn all of our lives, but brain maturation does not happen in a uniform way for all language functions. Vocabulary and grammar functions usually remain intact late in life. Phonological functions —the representation and production of sounds— degrade faster. This could explain why young learners acquire accents quickly, whilst older people often retain a strong accent. But who cares if you speak with an accent? As long as they don’t leave your speech completely garbled, accents are cute anyway.

„And why am I never able to roll that Spanish ‘R’ properly?”

A child can perceive all kinds of sound at birth. After a few months, this capacity to perceive sounds and contrasts decreases. “Different people don’t pronounce sounds in the exact same way and as we grow up we learn to recognise these slightly varying sounds as one by eliminating irrelevant variations. Whilst we do this, we also lose the capacity to perceive new things, such as foreign sounds,” Mousty explains. Thus, native Japanese speakers, for instance, have trouble differentiating between European ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds, because this distinction is missing from the Japanese language. But of course, you can still train your pronunciation to some extent.

„That’s all very well, but however hard I try, I’ll stay a boy. Boys are never as good as girls at languages. See how my girlfriend babbles away with the villagers effortlessly?”

“In general, girls do fare better…but it’s not that simple,” warns Mousty. The female and male brains do develop differently, yet the ensuing interpretations can be laden with sensitive undertones. Boys and girls have a different pattern of use of their left and right brain hemispheres when they perform a linguistic task. This means they often adopt different cognitive strategies, but doesn’t tell us how well these strategies work in practice. And here it is again tough to distinguish ‘innate’ characteristics from the influence of the environment. Among these influences, the traditional social roles and attitudes ascribed to women and men weigh heavily. “In the 1970s and 80s, several American studies in socio-linguistics showed that women had more influence on language changes, mostly a beneficial one,” Mousty recalls. “There were also authors arguing that women are more at ease with interaction and communication tasks, and men with language production.” But cheer up: even if there are demonstrated ‘gender effects’ on language, not all of them are favourable to girls.

„Whatever. Whether girls or boys, those people who are gifted at thousands of languages truly depress me.”

Once you learn one foreign language, it is definitely easier to learn a second or third one. “The competencies you develop when learning one language are transferred to others. It’s like training a muscle,” according to Mondt. The practice of switching from one language to another certainly slows down the negative effects of age on the brain and its learning capacity. Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Toronto, showed that active bilinguals had a delayed average onset of Alzheimer’s disease—four years later than monolinguals. This goes to show that regular exercise is good for the brain and in particular that language practice is a good workout.

„If I do improve, will I ever THINK in a foreign language? That’d be so cool.”

„Ah, that’s a vast philosophical question,“ remarks Mondt. “Do we need language at all to think? Or do we think through pure concepts, images, sounds?” In principle, one can think in another language, but this ability depends on many factors and one’s level of proficiency. Do words in different languages represent identical concepts, or do we think through our strongest language? Thierry and Wu have carried out an experiment at the University of Wales to elucidate this mechanism in late Chinese/English bilinguals. The participants were asked to indicate whether pairs of English words were related in meaning. They were unaware that some of the word pairs, though unrelated in meaning, concealed a repeated character when translated into Chinese. When they came across these ‘trick’ word pairs, the Chinese native speakers had a longer reaction time than the English native speakers. The researchers therefore believe that the Chinese speakers unconsciously translated into Chinese while reading English and thus took longer to process the information. ‘Unbalanced’ bilinguals—bilinguals who have unequal levels of proficiency in both languages— generally use their strongest language to perform certain tasks, such as counting.

„Hey, and what if I become really proficient in a foreign language… Could I forget my mother tongue?”

Yes, it is possible. Christophe Pallier, a French researcher, showed that Korean children adopted by French families at a young age displayed no language difference to native French speakers. What’s more, these children have no specific brain activation when presented with linguistic elements specific to their mother tongue: they have forgotten it. In a different vein, Mondt has studied children in situations of submersion, such as immigrant children who go to a school where they must speak a new language. After a time in the new environment, these kids require more time and effort than before to perform tasks in their mother tongue. “It creates bilingual people that are not balanced, and that’s definitely not a cognitive advantage,” Mondt notes. In your grown-up case however, the degradation of your mother tongue is not very likely— native languages in adults are on the whole more stable than in children.

„Actually, I do get better at languages sometimes… When I’m drunk.”

As strange as it sounds, this does make sense. Alcohol doesn’t affect competence, but does lift those inhibitions that usually slow down your practice and thus your language acquisition. “Maybe extroverted people move forward faster than people who dare not speak, just because ultimately they practice more,” says Mondt. Accepting that making mistakes is a part of the learning process is definitely cheaper, less noxious and probably just as effective as caipirinha. So go on and ask the receptionist about that shower curtain. You have nothing to lose but an ounce of linguistic pride; the earnest endearment of the locals is yours to earn.

Author: Tania Rabesandratana

Illustration: Verena Brandt

Experiment bilingual brain (textbox)

Katrien Mondt, a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, allowed Indigo a first-class experimental peep into her latest investigation of the bilingual brain.

Mondt works with three groups of people: early bilinguals (those who learnt their second language at a young age), late bilinguals, and monolinguals. She tries to determine if and how their language performance is linked to their maths performance. One of her most striking findings is that early, balanced bilingual children are better at arithmetics than monolinguals. She is now carrying out a similar study with adults and agreed for me to be one of the ‘late bilinguals’ of her sample.

The experiment takes place in the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels, as it requires the use of a special scanner for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). With this technique, Mondt visualises the activation of neurons in different areas of my brain while I perform a series of tasks.

Cédric the lovely MRI technician, gives me a dowdy grey pyjama and giggles when I come out of the changing room in my frumpy outfit. Suddenly, I’m no longer a young journalist, but another mildly frightened guinea pig. Such is the power of clothing. In the meantime, Mondt details the three types of tasks I have to perform, which appear on the screen during the scan:

Language: generate verbs from a series of nouns;

Attention: press the button if the word on the screen is the same as the name of the actual colour of the letters;

Maths: press the button if the result of a sum is correct.

Piece of cake, or so I thought.

Cédric then leads me to the white MRI machine and gives me huge earphones to wear: “because of the noise.” What noise? As my body slides smoothly into the machine, I imagine myself the heroine of a science-fiction movie.

The experiment starts, so does the noise. UNEXPECTEDLY AND OVERPOWERINGLY LOUD. It first feels like my head is trapped in a fire alarm. Then it reminds me of the inside of a washing machine.

You know those TV quiz games? You score all the bonus points when answering the questions from the comfort of your sofa, but in front of the cameras it becomes downright daunting. Same idea applies here. Once you lie down in that tube surrounded by so much noise, matching blue with blue or 2 + 3 with 5 actually does represent quite a challenge.

On the other side of the window, Mondt checks what I answered correctly and of my brain. This way, she can see which areas of my brain I activate to process the tasks. Later, she will compile the data for all three groups and compare the activation patterns. In the end, she hopes to be able to characterise our cognitive strategies and to better understand the bilingual brain.

The experiment takes about an hour and inevitably my body is itching at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places. I wonder if Mondt can see it when my mind wanders off and if that will affect my score. Apparently though, it all went well. I left, tired but unharmed, and proud to have made a small contribution to neurolinguistics.


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