University of Houston developmental psychology professor Arturo Hernandez is working to unlock the neural bases of language. Since the 1990s, he has been collecting brain scan data as he has asked bilingual and monolingual people to process words and new languages. Hernandez findings: bilinguals do better learning new words than monolinguals.
“Bilinguals are expert word learners,” said Hernandez. “What we’ve found is that there seems to be an advantage in switching between tasks— deciding if something’s red, or green, or a square, or a triangle.”
Hernandez is hopeful that his work could have applications for genetics, learning disorders, people with difficulty learning language, or children with language delay, speech, or sound issues.
“We want to know what the differences are and why they exist. Eventually, we’ll want to know how we can help people who may not be as quick or as fast to learn a language to learn faster,” said Hernandez.
He has been investigating the nature of language processing using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods to inform his work. In one study, Hernandez looked at how people learn sounds. In another study, he focused on how people learn words.
“In the sound study, we don’t find differences between bilinguals and monolinguals when they have to learn new speech sounds,” said Hernandez. “In the word study, when bilinguals or monolinguals have to learn German words— these are Spanish-English bilinguals— we find that bilinguals do better than monolinguals.”
In talking to parents, Hernandez said he would “absolutely” encourage them to expose their children to multiple languages.
“The one advantage we have found— pretty amazing actually, pretty strong effect— is in learning a third language,” said Hernandez. “In our study, the bilinguals learned the German words faster, and they used much less brain … so much more focused brain activity, in an area that’s much more internal in the brain … relative to the monolinguals, who used more cortical, higher sort of cognitive stop-start areas of executive functions.”
For Hernandez, it is personally important to look at the way brain activity relates to understanding and learning language.
“When I began graduate school, I wanted to study the bilingual brain. I read some cases of people who lost language as adults because of brain injury, and I reflected that to an experience I had when I went to Brazil for two years and learned Portuguese. I felt like I was losing Spanish and English, which I had spoken my entire life. There was a resonance there, and I wanted to understand what that was. Why is it that people lose a language? What does that mean? I didn’t have any brain injury, why was I having trouble with language?”
These days, Hernandez directs the University of Houston’s Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism, and his current research interests include cognitive neuroscience, bilingual language processing and second language acquisition.
“We’ve realized there are differences even within a bilingual or monolingual population,” said Hernandez. “Some people learn faster, some take longer to learn a language. What tricks may some of the people who learn fast use?”