Tag Archives: bilingualism

Our brains may be naturally wired for multilingualism, being ‘blind’ to changes between languages

Our brains may be tailored for bilingualism, new research reports. According to the findings, the neural centers that are tasked with combining words together into larger sentences don’t ‘see’ different languages, instead treating them as if they belong to a single one.

Image credits Willi Heidelbach.

The same pathways that combine words from a single language also do the work of combining words from two different languages in the brain, according to the paper. In the brains of bilingual people, the authors report, this allows for a seamless transition in comprehending two or more languages. Our brains simply don’t register a switch between languages, they explain.

The findings are directly relevant to bilingual people, as it allows us a glimpse into how and why they often mix and match words from different languages into the same sentences. However, they are also broadly relevant to people in general, as it helps us better understand how our brains process words and meaning.

Speaking in tongues

“Our brains are capable of engaging in multiple languages,” explains Sarah Phillips, a New York University doctoral candidate and the lead author of the paper. “Languages may differ in what sounds they use and how they organize words to form sentences. However, all languages involve the process of combining words to express complex thoughts.”

“Bilinguals show a fascinating version of this process — their brains readily combine words from different languages together, much like when combining words from the same language,” adds Liina Pylkkänen, a professor in NYU’s Department of Linguistics and Department of Psychology and the senior author of the paper.

Bilingualism and multilingualism are widespread around the world. In the USA alone, according to data from the U.S. Census, roughly 60 million people (just under 1 in 5 people) speak two or more languages. Despite this, the neurological mechanisms that allow us to understand and use more than a single language are still poorly understood.

The specific habit of bilinguals to mix words from their two languages together into single sentences during conversation was of particular interest to the authors of this paper. In order to find out, the duo set out to test whether bilinguals use the same neural pathways to understand mixed-language expressions as they do to understand single-language expressions.

For the study, they worked with Korean/English bilinguals. The participants were asked to look at a series of word combinations and pictures on a computer screen. These words either formed a meaningful two-word sentence or pairs of verbs that didn’t have any meaning, such as “jump melt” for example. Some of these pairings had two words from a single language, while others used one word from English and another from Korean. This was meant to simulate mixed-language conversations.

Participants then had to indicate whether the pictures matched the words that preceded them.

Their brain activity was measured during the experiment using magnetoencephalography (MEG), which records neural activity by measuring the magnetic fields generated in the brain when electrical currents are fired off from neurons.

The data showed that bilinguals used the same neural mechanisms to interpret mixed-language expressions as they did to interpret single-language expressions. More specifically, activity in their left anterior temporal lobe, a brain region known for playing a part in combining meaning from multiple words, didn’t show any differences when interpreting single- or mixed-language expressions. This was the region that actually combined the meanings of the two words participants were reading, as long as they did combine together into a meaningful whole.

All in all, the authors explain, these findings suggest that the mechanisms tasked with combining words in our brains are ‘blind’ to language. They function just as effectively, and in the same way, when putting together words from a single language or multiple ones.

“Earlier studies have examined how our brains can interpret an infinite number of expressions within a single language,” Phillips concludes. “This research shows that bilingual brains can, with striking ease, interpret complex expressions containing words from different languages.”

The research was carried out with bilingual people, for the obvious limitation that non-bilinguals only understand a single language. While the findings should be broadly-applicable, there is still a question of cause and effect here. Is the neural behavior described in this paper a mechanism that’s present in all of our brains? Or is it something that happens specifically because bilinguals have learned and become comfortable with using multiple languages? Further research will be needed to answer these questions.

The paper “Composition within and between Languages in the Bilingual Mind: MEG Evidence from Korean/English Bilinguals” has been published in the journal eNeuro.

Typing fonts.

Each language you speak in alters your perception of time, study finds

Language can have a powerful effect on how we think about time, a new study found. The link is so powerful that switching language context in a conversation or during a task actually shifts how we perceive and estimate time.

Typing fonts.

Image credits Willi Heidelbach.

I think we all like to consider our minds as being somehow insulated from the going on’s around us. That we take comfort in knowing it will absorb, process, and respond to external stimuli in a calm, efficient, but most of all consistent fashion. Maybe it comes down to the sense of immutable truth our reasoning is imbued with if we assume that it’s rooted in a precise and impartial system — in a chaotic world, we need to know that we can trust our mind. A view which is a tad conceitful, I’d say, since it’s basically our mind telling us what to believe about itself.

And it’s also probably false. Professors Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University, have discovered that our perception of time strongly depends on the linguistic context we’re currently using.


People who are fluent in two (bilinguals) or more (polyglots) languages are known to ‘code-switch’ often — a rapid and usually unconscious shift between languages in a single context. But each language carries within it a certain way of looking at the world, of organizing and referring to things around us. For example, English speakers mark duration of events by likening them to physical distances, e.g. a short lecture, while a Spanish speaker will liken duration to volume or amount, e.g. a small lecture. So each language subtly ingrains a certain frame of reference for time on its speaker.

But bilinguals, the team found, show a great degree of flexibility in the way they denote duration, based on the language context in use. In essence, this allows them to change how the mind perceives time.

For the study, the team asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to estimate the passage of time or distance (distractionary task) while watching a screen showing either a line growing across it or a container being filled. Participants reproduced duration by clicking the computer mouse once, waiting the appropriate time, and clicking again. They were prompted to do this task either with the word ‘duración’ (the Spanish word for duration) or ‘tid’ (the Swedish term). The containers and lines themselves weren’t an accurate representation of duration, however, but were meant to test to what extent participants were able to disregard spatial information when estimating duration.

The idea is that if language does interfere with our perception of duration, Spanish speakers (who talk about time as a volume) would be influenced more by the fill level of the containers than their Swedish counterparts (who talk about time as a distance), and vice-versa for the lines.

And it did

Image credits emijrp / Wikimedia.

The team recruited 40 native Spanish and Swedish bilinguals each and had them run three variations of the test. The first one found that Spanish native speakers were influenced to a greater extent (there was a wider discrepancy between real and perceived time) by the containers than the lines (scoring an average 463-millisecond discrepancy vs the Swedes’ 344 ms). Native Sweedish speakers were more influenced by the lines than the containers (scoring 412 discrepancies vs their counterparts’ 390 ms discrepancies).

The second test again included 40 of each group and found that in the absence of the Spanish/Sweedish prompt words, the team “found no interaction between language and stimulus type, in either the line condition or the container condition. […] both language groups seemed to display slightly greater spatial interference in the lines condition than in the containers condition. There were no significant main effects.”

The third test included seventy-four Spanish-Sweedish bilinguals who performed either the line or container task. The team removed the distractor task to reduce fatigue and alternated between the prompt languages. Each participant took the experiment twice, once with Spanish and once with Swedish prompt labels. The team concludes that “when all stimuli were analysed,” there were “no significant main effects or interaction” either in the distance or time task — meaning both groups were just as accurate in estimating time or distance regardless of language.

“Our approach to manipulate different language prompts in the same population of bilinguals revealed context-induced adaptive behavior,” the team writes. “Prompts in Language A induced Language A-congruent spatial interference. When the prompt switched to Language B, interference became Language B-congruent instead.”

“To our knowledge, this study provides the first psychophysical demonstration of shifting duration representations within the same individual as a function of language context.”

Exactly why this shift takes place is still a matter of debate: the team interprets the finding in the context of both the label-feedback hypothesis and the predictive processing hypothesis, but mostly in technical terms for other linguists to discern. For you and me, I think the main takeaway is that as much as our minds shape words so do words shape our minds — texturing everything from our thoughts to our emotions, all the way to our perception of time.

The paper “The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Editor’s note: edited measured discrepancy for more clarity.

never forget a language

Forgot how to speak a foreign language? Maybe. Your brain didn’t, though

Even though they can’t remember a word in mandarin, children from China adopted in France bear the same brain activity response as bilinguals. Essentially, their brains use the same patterns and neural areas as bilinguals even though by all accounts they must think they’re monolingual. The implies that the impact of early developmental experiences on later neural outcomes is much more significant than some might think.

never forget a language

Photo: jose luis pelaez

When I was three or four years old, I think, I would watch some silly cartoons every morning for about two hours on TV. These cartoons were dubbed in Italian, and in a matter of months I become quite proficient, my parents told me. This lasted for half a year, then I stopped watching the Italian station and moved to something different. Cartoon Network, if I recall, became a lot more interesting for me. Nevertheless, by the time I was six I had forgotten every Italian I knew, even though I could actually have a conversation (and had with a native speaker!) less than a year before. To this day, the only word in Italian I know is “pizza”.

This short story might be familiar to most of you, its essence I mean. We all have episodes in our early childhood when we could speak words in a different language, play a weird game or knew a certain skill that now’s oblivious like a black hole. Episodes from a time when we, as children, had sponges for brains, rapidly soaking information, but just as easily squeezing it out of the system. But is that information really lost? Maybe, but the brain connections that formed in this key period are likely more resilient, as illustrated by the study made by researchers at McGill University, Canada.

The team performed fMRI scans on three sets of children: (1) monolingual French children; (2) children adopted from China before age 3 who discontinued Chinese and spoke only French; (3) Chinese-speaking children who learned French as a second language but maintained Chinese. The scans were made while the children performed a  French phonological working memory (PWM) task. In other words, the children were played French sounding words. Strikingly, the adoptees who considered French as their only language  showed a brain activation pattern more resembling that of Chinese-French bilinguals than those of the French-only speakers as they recruited more than one brain area. Early exposure to a language, the findings suggest, build strong brain connections that may last for a lifetime.

Scientists aren’t sure why bilinguals need to recruit more brain areas when they speak their second language, but there are some evidence that being bilingual comes with certain cognitive benefits. Bilinguals get distract less easily, are better at multitasking,  find creative solutions to problems more often, have increased memory capacity, and lower risk of Alzheimer’s.