Jahnavi Shah

PhD Student, Planetary Science

Brain Rewired

Hi all,

Last week, I had a nice chat with a friend who resides in Brazil. During our conversation, he took many pauses to find the correct English word – his native language being Portuguese – for what he was trying to say. He reflected he was having trouble with verbal translation because he is out of practice, but finds it relatively easy to write in English. This interaction made me recall of the time when my younger brother started school and was having difficulty communicating or rather was just a bit slow at it compared to his classmates. His language teacher had explained to us that because English was his second language and he did not have much practice speaking it, his brain was taking a longer time to translate. The information would be inputted as English, which the brain translates to the native language (Gujarati, in this case), forms a response, and then translates it back into English. Reflecting on this, I was a little interested in learning more about the connection between bilingualism (or multi-lingualism) and the brain. As a result, I lightly explored a few articles and here, I share some points I learned.

According to research, learning (or mastering) two languages can change the brain structure by rewiring it to work differently than brains of people who speak one language. Judith F. Kroll, a cognitive scientist at Pennsylvania State University, says that both languages are always “on” in the brains of bilinguals, which other cognitive scientists have also noted. And the mental work needed to select and switch between them helps reshape the brain’s networks. These changes in wiring differ from person to person and depend on the person’s language experience (learning history, the languages themselves and the context in which they are used).

A study by Li et al. (2014) shows strengthening of neural connections between different parts of the brain in people who underwent language training over a period of six weeks. The stronger connections between different regions of the brain makes them more resistant to damage (such as distraction and dementia).

Journal of Neurolinguistics/Pennsylvania State University

Furthermore, a study by Dr. Ellen Bialystok (et al.), a cognitive neuroscientist at York University in Toronto, shows that Alzheimer symptoms are delayed fix to six years in bilinguals compared to people who spoke only one language. It implies that bilinguals were able to continue functioning at higher level after the disease had taken root, and could cope with it for longer.

This was all very intriguing and neat to learn about, and it definitely highlighted the one of many advantages of bilingualism (or multilingualism). Knowing that learning new languages is easier at a younger age, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn more than one language as a child. This also allowed me to reflect on learning French throughout school and how I wish it would have been emphasized more than it is now. A good way of learning a second language is in school because of consistency, but only useful if it is practiced regularly, especially the verbal aspect. Hopefully, I can take what I’ve learned here and try to re-learn French (to some extent, so that I could have a very simple conversation), at some point.

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