Monday, February 9, 2009

Brain activity and mother tongue

A recent study of language interpreters conducted by Italy’s National Research Council indicates that cerebral activity changes significantly depending on the language one is speaking.

The participants in the research study were Italian interpreters who work for the European Union. They were "extremely fluent in English."

Some excerpts:

"For more than a year, a team of scientists experimented on 15 interpreters, revealing what they say were surprising differences in brain activity when the subjects were shown words in their native language and in other languages they spoke.

The findings show how differently the brain absorbs and recalls languages learned in early childhood and later in life.

The only exception would be for those bilingual individuals who learn an extra language before age five.

“’We didn't expect a big difference in brain activity’ when they switched from one language to another.”

In fact, the difference was striking.

"I didn't expect such differences at the very beginning of the process," Dien said in a telephone interview.

"They emerge at a very early level of comprehension," he said. "It will take a lot more work to work out the implications of that."

The Italian study also showed links between brain activity and proficiency in other languages. The differences showed up when the translators were shown words in English and in German, a language they knew at a more basic level, Proverbio said.

This phenomenon had been already discovered by previous studies which, however, had not spotted any difference between the mother tongue and other languages spoken with high proficiency. This had suggested that with some effort "we could all become perfectly bilingual," Proverbio said. "Unfortunately, that's not true."

The full article here

A related article:

Fitting two languages into one brain

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