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The bilingual brain

Interdisciplinary research finds a key to learning new languages

Brain activity study by Psychology and Communication Sciences & Disorders professors finds link to foreign language acquisition

A research collaboration between the Departments of Psychology and Communication Sciences and Disorders has produced a study that could reshape how second languages are taught and learned.

Arturo Hernandez, director of the developmental graduate program in the Department of Psychology, used neuroimaging methods, as well as behavior techniques, to investigate language acquisition in the bilingual brain. He mapped how people who speak two languages process language acquisition and observed how their ability to learn changes over time.

Director of the Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism, Dr. Hernandez is the author of a new book, “The Bilingual Brain,” which explores whether bilingual people have more plasticity and adaptability because they have learned two sounds systems and can learn vocabulary words better than monolinguals or people who can speak only one language.

His research led him to consider bilinguals’ ability to learn a third sound system. He worked on the study with post-doctoral researcher Pilar Archila-Suerte and Ferenc Bunta, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, who specializes in bilingual phonological acquisition.

The team compared the ability of bilingual people to learn a new language to the ability of people who speak only one language (monolinguals) to learn a new language. They used Hungarian sounds the participants had never heard before, and that neither resembled Spanish nor sounded like English, to establish a level playing field for monolinguals and bilinguals.

The researchers found that half the bilinguals and monolinguals could learn the sounds and half the bilinguals and monolinguals could not.

When they looked more closely at the brain activity of the “good perceivers” (those people who could learn the sound the first time they heard it), they discovered that the people with good perception used speech areas of the brain to process sounds. Further study of the brain activity of the “bad receivers” showed that those sections of the brain were not activated to process sound.

 “In our study, we found people that seem to be intuitive about the sounds, independently of how many languages they speak,” Dr. Hernandez said. “That could serve as a predictor of whether someone could learn another language more easily or not.”

“That was an eye opener for me,” he continued, “because I feel like now we are starting to find different factors that predict the ability to learn different things. Now, the question is how we put this together.”

Dr. Hernandez said the long-term goal is an educational outcome that would help change the way to teach language to people, specifically a second language.

“I would hope the results of this research would allow us to dramatically change the time at which we introduce a second language and the method that we use, such as a stronger emphasis on learning the sounds of a language rather than learning vocabulary and memorizing it for a test.”

- By Melissa Carroll