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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Do people who grow up speaking more than one language use more brain area for language processing? And, does the brain use more resources especially for languages of different structures?

People who speak more than one language are generally referred to as being bilingual, but there are many ways in which a person can become bilingual. Some grow up learning two languages at the same time, others learn them sequentially so that the mother tongue is learned first and a second language is learned later. However, in both cases the person may be equally fluent in each of the two languages. As it turns out, it is more important for the brain how fluent the person is, than how or when the languages are learnt. Current brain research studies suggest that when a person is equally good in both languages the brain uses the same areas, with the same level of activation and for the same reasons in both languages.

bilingual sign

In many cases bilinguals are not equally good at both languages. If one compares the brain activation when a person uses his or her native and second language and is not equally fluent in both languages, the second language usually activates the same general language areas as the native language but these areas are more active in the second language. The less fluent language may also recruit areas not related directly to language but to cognitive control and attention. This means that when something is more difficult more brain resources are needed to process it.

Many have asked us if languages with different structure are processed differently if they are spoken by the same person, as may be the case for a bilingual. Languages vary greatly in how they express the relations of words in a sentence (who did what to whom). Some languages like English, Dutch and Chinese change the position of words in a sentence (which we call ‘word order’) while other languages like Japanese and Korean include additional short words without meaning to express these relations (which we call ‘case particles’). If the two languages of the bilingual belong to different language families (like English and Japanese), it is conceivable that they are not processed similarly, even when the bilingual is equally fluent in both languages. Currently very few studies exist on this, but at least there is one study on native Chinese people and native Korean people who speak both English and Japanese as a second language. The study found that brain activations depended on how similar the grammars of the non-native language was to that of the native language. Using English as a second language activated the language system stronger for the Korean native group than for the Chinese native group, because English and Korean are more different. Using Japanese as a second language activated slightly more brain areas for Chinese native speakers than for Korean native speakers, also because the grammars of Chinese and Japanese differ more. An explanation may be that besides proficiency and age of acquisition, brain activations depend on the differences and similarities of the languages’ grammars. Sometimes reaching automaticity on the level of the brain may take longer than reaching a proficient behavioral performance, especially if the language has a very different structure from your native language. However, this remains an open question. It seems clear that whichever language is spoken, on the level of the brain the same regions underlie language processing.

Written by Annika Hulten & Diana Dimitrova

Further reading:

Abutalebi, J. (2008). Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychologica,128, 466-478.

Kotz, S. A. (2009). A critical review of ERP and fMRI evidence on L2 syntactic processing. Brain Language, 109, 68-74.

Jeong, H., Sugiura, M., Sassa, Y., Yokoyama, S., Horie, K., Sato, S., & Kawashima, R. (2007). Cross-linguistic influence on brain activation during second language processing: An fMRI study. Bilingualism Language and Cognition, 10(2), 175.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

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