Nav: Home

Learning language

May 07, 2019

For most native English-speakers, learning the Mandarin Chinese language from scratch is no easy task.

Learning it in a class that essentially compresses a one-semester college course into a single month of intensive instruction -- and agreeing to have your brain scanned before and after--might seem even more daunting.

But the 24 Americans who did just that have enabled University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi and her colleagues to make new discoveries about how adults learn a foreign language.

The study, published in May in the journal NeuroImage, focused on the roles of the brain's left and right hemispheres in language acquisition. The findings could lead to instructional methods that potentially improve students' success in learning a new language.

"The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success" in learning Mandarin, said Qi, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science.

"This was new," she said. "For decades, everyone has focused on the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere has been largely overlooked."

The left hemisphere is undoubtedly important in language learning, Qi said, noting that clinical research on individuals with speech disorders has indicated that the left side of the brain is in many ways the hub of language processing.

But, she said, before any individuals -- infants learning their native language or adults learning a second language -- begin processing such aspects of the new language as vocabulary and grammar, they must first learn to identify its basic sounds or phonological elements.

It's during that process of distinguishing "acoustic details" of sounds where the right side of the brain is key, according to the new findings.

Researchers began by exposing the 24 participants in the study to pairs of sounds that were similar but began with different consonants, such as "bah" and "nah," and having them describe the tones, Qi said.

"We asked: Were the tones of those two sounds similar or different?" she said. "We used the brain activation patterns during this task to predict who would be the most successful learners" of the new language.

The study continued by teaching the participants in a setting designed to replicate a college language class, although the usual semester was condensed into four weeks of instruction. Students attended class for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, completed homework assignments and took tests.

"Our research is the first to look at attainment and long-term retention of real-world language learned in a classroom setting, which is how most people learn a new language," Qi said.

By scanning each participant's brain with functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) at the beginning and end of the project, the scientists were able to see which part of the brain was most engaged while processing basic sound elements in Mandarin. To their surprise, they found that -- although, as expected, the left hemisphere showed a substantial increase of activation later in the learning process -- the right hemisphere in the most successful learners was most active in the early, sound-recognition stage.

"It turns out that the right hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the beginning of learning," Qi said. She added that the right hemisphere's role then seems to diminish in those successful learners as they continue learning the language.

Additional research will investigate whether the findings apply to those learning other languages, not just Mandarin. The eventual goal is to explore whether someone can practice sound recognition early in the process of learning a new language to potentially improve their success.

"We found that the more active the right hemisphere is, the more sensitive the listener is to acoustic differences in sound," Qi said. "Everyone has different levels of activation, but even if you don't have that sensitivity to begin with, you can still learn successfully if your brain is plastic enough."

Researchers can't say for certain how to apply these findings to real-life learning, but when it comes down to it, "Adults are trainable," Qi said. "They can train themselves to become more sensitive to foreign speech sounds."
-end-
More about the research

The research was done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Qi conducted postdoctoral training at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research before joining the UD faculty in 2017.

She is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science and has joint appointments in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program.

The NeuroImage paper was co-authored with colleagues at MIT and at Northeastern and Boston universities, and the research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

University of Delaware

Related Language Articles:

Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
American sign language and English language learners: New linguistic research supports the need for policy changes
A new study of the educational needs of students who are native users of American Sign Language (ASL) shows glaring disparities in their treatment by the U.S Department of Education.
The language of facial expressions
University of Miami Psychology Professor Daniel Messinger collaborated with researchers at Western University in Canada to show that our brains are pre-wired to perceive wrinkles around the eyes as conveying more intense and sincere emotions.
The universal language of hormones
Bioinformatics specialists from the University of Würzburg have studied a specific class of hormones which is relevant for plants, bacteria and indirectly for humans, too.
Stretching language to its limit
A disregard for human traditions, the brutality of predation, sacrifice, and sexual desire are ingrained in languages across cultures.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#540 Specialize? Or Generalize?
Ever been called a "jack of all trades, master of none"? The world loves to elevate specialists, people who drill deep into a single topic. Those people are great. But there's a place for generalists too, argues David Epstein. Jacks of all trades are often more successful than specialists. And he's got science to back it up. We talk with Epstein about his latest book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.