Tag Archives: Brain and Language

Tongue Twisters and Communication: How the Brain Learns Languages

Have you ever wondered how the brain learns languages? Why are we able to communicate so easily? How is it that we can formulate sentences, speak, and comprehend what others are saying in split-seconds? A majority of us think that language is only controlled by our lips, mouths, ears, and hands. However, what most people don’t know is that language originates in the brain. Specifically, our language faculties are located in certain areas of the left hemisphere cortex in healthy adults. A fun fact to know is that the science of neurolinguistics studies the physical structure of the brain as it relates to language production and comprehension. Read more to find out how the brain learns languages!

How the Brain Learns Language

Some scientists have argued that language is what distinguishes humans from all other animals on the planet. Other scholars ask if humans are really the only species to possess language. Of course, other animals communicate with one another, like bees, who send each other messages through their special dances. However, human language is more than just communication. Rather, it is a complex system of brain processing that involves auditory messages used as symbols to convey meaning and function in this complicated world.

Looking Deeper into the Structure of the Human Brain

When discussing the brain as a language organ, some physiological and structural characteristics of our brain must be understood:

  1. Human brains have a contralateral neural control arrangement – this means that the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body.
  2. Each hemisphere has somewhat unique functions, making them asymmetrical. For example, the right hemisphere controls spacial perception, while the left hemisphere controls abstract reasoning and physical tasks that require a step-by-step progression. The left hemisphere is also responsible for language control, which takes place inside the perisylvian area, and this ability is usually fully developed by the time we reach the age of puberty.

Now, why does language originate from the left hemisphere rather than the right? Since the left hemisphere controls patterns that progress step-by-step in a single dimension, it is more apt to control language than the right, which performs complex multi-step tasks. Language is a linear process – sounds and words are uttered one after another in a definite progression, not in multiple directions all at once. In neurolinguistics, this is called monolineal progression. Evidence that language is activated by the left hemisphere comes from PET scans and studies on individuals who suffer from brain injuries.

How the Brain Learns Languages

According to Noam Chomsky, a famous linguist of the late twentieth century, we are all born with a language instinct or language acquisition device (LAD). This is our innate capacity to acquire an extremely creative system of communicating with each other. It seems to be a human genetic trend that everyone possesses: nearly all children exposed to language naturally acquire it as if by magic. Most researchers believe that the LAD is the result of a complex interaction of many genes in the brain that work together to produce and interpret language.

However, it must be noted that the natural ability for humans to acquire language normally diminishes near the age of puberty, which is known as the critical age for fluently acquiring a native tongue. Researchers believe that this phenomenon is connected with the lateralization of language in the left hemisphere. Studies show that children actually use both left and right hemispheres to process language because these brain areas are undeveloped for the time. As children age, their brain structures mature, whereupon the responsibility of language is shifted fully to the left side of the brain. If individuals lose the chance to learn language during their early years before adolescence, then their hemispheres miss the opportunity to mature and develop correctly. Therefore, people who are not exposed to proper language communication during childhood usually are unable to learn to speak a language fluently in adolescence and adulthood. A real-life example of this is the story of Genie Wiley, a feral child who was locked in her dark bedroom for the first thirteen years of her life, tortured by her parents. Because she was not exposed to any form of direct language communication, when she was found at age 13, she was unable to learn language and speak fluently. Her overall abuse resulted in severe consequences that affected her overall ability to interact with others later in life.

See more about the Genie Wiley case below

Aphasias

Injuries of specific parts of the left hemisphere responsible for language acquisition can result in aphasias, or speak impairments. This is caused by damage in the region of the sylvian fissure, in the perisylvian area. The following two types of language loss are associated with harm done to particular sub-regions of the perisylvian area:

1. Broca’s Aphasia

In 1861, Paul Broca discovered Broca’s area, which is located in the frontal portion of the left perisylvian area. This seems to be involved in grammatical processing, specifically concepts like singular vs. plural and tenses. It processes the grammatical structure of sentences rather than the specific units of meaning – instead of focusing on the content of the language, it emphasizes on how words are put together. Broca’s Aphasia involves a difficulty in speaking, whereby it is also known as emissive aphasia. Broca’s aphasics are able to comprehend written and spoken language but have great difficulty in responding in any coherent way. They tend to utter only isolated words without using conjunctions or full sentences to relay their thoughts.

2. Wernicke’s Aphasia

In 1875, Karl Wernicke discovered Wernicke’s area, which is found in the lower posterior part of the perisylvian region. This controls comprehension, as well as the selection of content words. If this area becomes damaged, grammar and function words are preserved, but the content is mostly destroyed. Therefore, Wernicke’s aphasia involves a difficulty in comprehension – people afflicted are unable to extract meaning from language. It’s also known as receptive aphasia because these people are unable to respond at all to those they are conversing with (contrast with Broca’s aphasia, where patients can understand but have difficulty in replying). Wernicke’s aphasics tend to speak incessantly and will utter volumes of grammatically correct nonsense with relatively few content words or with jibberish words like “thingamajig” or “whatchamacallit,” instead of real content words.

More on How the Brain Learns Language

The healthy human brain uses both areas in unison while speaking and processing language. Adults use the neurons of Wernicke’s area to select sounds to listen to, and the neurons of Broca’s area combine these units according to phonology and syntax to produce utterances.

To speak a word that is written on paper (i.e. reading aloud), information first goes to the primary visual cortex. From there, the information is transmitted to the posterior speech area, including Wernicke’s area. From Wernicke’s area, information travels to Broca’s area, and then to the primary motor cortex, whereupon we speak aloud the words we have comprehended from paper. This similar pathway is utilized when we want to repeat words that are heard, but in this situation, information first goes to the primary auditory cortex and then to the posterior speech area.

What Happens When Your Brain Learns A New Language?

According to recent research by Swedish scientists using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology on lab participants, learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain. Young adult military recruits learned Arabic, Russian, or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical students studied hard on their sciences without learning any new language. The MRI scans showed that specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size, whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. The areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found the languages, and brain development varied according to performance. Some learners increased the sizes of their hippocampus, while others had an increase in size of the motor region of their cerebral cortex.

Although the implications of this research are not very clear as of yet, they might eventually lead to advances in the use of technology for second-language learners. For example, other researches have used the same ultrasound machinery employed during pregnancy sonograms to explain to language learners how to make sounds by showing them visual images of how their tongue, lips, and jaw should move with their airstream mechanisms and the rise and fall of the soft palate.

Other research, done by Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois at Chicago, used electrophysiology to examine how the brain learns language. She taught second-language learners to speak an artificial language. One group learned through explanations of the rules of the language, and the second group learned by being immersed in the language. While all of the participants learned something from each artificial language, it was the immersed learners who had brain processes like those of native speakers.

Brain imaging research might eventually allow us to shape language learning methods to our cognitive abilities. It can possibly tell us whether we learn best from formal instructions that highlight rules, immersing ourselves in the sounds of the language, or maybe one followed by the other.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Not Sure If You Should Take The Leap? Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

We may not look back on our foreign language classes at school with much fondness.However, after reading about the following benefits of learning foreign languages, we may all be searching for our Spanish or French class notes.

Learning a foreign language can be difficult. The older you are, the more challenging it can be. Nevertheless, learning a new language can have a range of cognitive, health and cultural benefits.

Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Beneficial for traveling, learning and communicating

Learning a foreign language means you can explore a whole new culture, country, or continent through the native tongue. Learning a foreign language also allows us to communicate with individuals who do not speak our mother tongue.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Stay young and stave off disease

Research has found that bilingualism can help counteract cognitive decline. In fact, it was noted that bilingual older adults had better memory than monolingual older adults. Furthermore, there has been links between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s, showing the correlation to speaking more than one language and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, Evy Woumans and colleagues have found that in older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the rate of progression is slower in bilingual patients compared to monolingual patients.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Be more creative

A review into the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, by Olusola Adesope and colleagues found that bilingualism has been associated with enhanced creativity and abstract thinking. Essentially, being proficient in a foreign language can make you more creative and can help you think outside the box.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improved problem-solving skills

Bilinguals tend to have better problem-solving skills than monolinguals. In addition, bilinguals tend to perform better on tasks like the Stroop test, which requires an element of conflict management. Being fluent in a foreign language has been linked to enhanced inhibitory control ability. This means that bilinguals are better at ignoring information that interferes with their ability to complete a task. The message here seems to be that learning a foreign language can help us to solve problems faster and help us to ignore irrelevant information.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Better cognitive control

Researchers Viorica Marion and Anthony Shook tested bilinguals in experiments of task switching. Participants were required to switch between sorting objects based on colour and by shape. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals displayed high levels of cognitive control. They find it easier to switch between tasks compared to monolinguals. Essentially, learning a foreign language may improve our task switching ability. Researchers propose enhanced cognitive control is due to the ability to balance two languages. Bilingual language processing networks for both languages are active at the same time. As both languages are activated, the individual responds in the correct language by learning to inhibit one language over the other. By doing this, bilinguals improve their inhibitory control mechanism, to the point where when processing language, the process of inhibiting the language that isn’t needed at a particular time becomes second nature. Wondering how you can train your brain and cognitive skills? Try some fun brain games!

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Changes brain structure

Bilingualism has been found to increase neuroplasticity. Researcher Rosanna Olsen and colleagues investigated structural brain differences in monolinguals and bilinguals using fMRI. Scans revealed that bilinguals display increased activation in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC plays an important role in tasks which require control). This part of the brain is associated with attention and inhibition. The researchers found that the hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus are more malleable in bilinguals (The hippocampus is associated with memory and the superior temporal gyrus is associated with sound processing). Furthermore, these structures as well as the frontal lobe are thicker in bilingual individuals (The frontal lobes are associated with executive functions such as problem solving and executive control-need some exercises to improve executive functions?). Increased volumes of white matter have been noted in frontal and temporal lobes. According to researcher Christos Pilatsikas and colleagues, when learning a second language age doesn’t matter, as adults who have learnt a foreign language have shown increase white matter. Being proficient in a foreign language can improve connections of brain regions that control our memory, executive functioning, attention and inhibition processes.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improves attention and attention control

Studies have shown that on tasks of attention control, bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals. Also bilinguals tend to have a higher attention capacity. Bilinguals are better at filtering out unwanted information and find it easier to focus on more relevant information.

Improves ability to process information– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Being bilingual can benefit sensory and information processing. Jennifer Krizman and colleagues present participants with target sounds embedded in background noise. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals found it easier to filter out background noise. The researchers found bilingualism enhances sound processing and sustained attention. The study found that bilinguals process sound similarly to musicians. This means that one of the benefits of learning a foreign language is being able to improve the efficiency of the brain’s auditory system, and enhance our ability to distinguish between similar sounds.

Benefits of learning foreign languages

Enhances working memory– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Managing two languages puts increased pressure our working memory. To ease the pressure, bilinguals become more efficient at information processing. Combining this with their enhanced inhibitory control ability, a bilingual’s working memory capacity and efficiency us greater than monolinguals.

Learning multiple foreign languages

We have already established that being fluent in a foreign language can improve our information processing abilities and enhance our sustained attention. As a result of these enhanced processes, bilinguals find it easier to learn a third or even fourth foreign language.

Learning a foreign language can have numerous benefits on our cognitive functions. It improves executive functions, cognitive control, attention, and memory. In addition, neuroimaging studies have revealed that learning a foreign language in later life can actually grow the brain and improve the connections between different brain regions. What is even more interesting is that learning a foreign language can counteract cognitive decline and slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless of the age at which we learn a foreign language, it is still beneficial for our brains to do so. So, although it may be a little more difficult, it is clearly never too late to reap the benefits of learning foreign languages! Encouraging young children to learn a foreign language may benefit them in later life, so schools should look at making learning a foreign language a compulsory part of the curriculum. Aside from the benefits to cognition and the brain, for all of us who have the travelling bug and want to explore new cultures, learning the lingo is obviously the best place to start!

Do you have any questions or comments? Leave me a note below! 🙂

References

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research80(2), 207-245.

Krizman, J., Marian, V., Shook, A., Skoe, E., & Kraus, N. (2012). Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(20), 7877-7881.

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N. C., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg, L., & Lövdén, M. (2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage63(1), 240-244.

Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.

Pliatsikas, C., Moschopoulou, E., & Saddy, J. D. (2015). The effects of bilingualism on the white matter structure of the brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(5), 1334-1337.

Woumans, E., Santens, P., Sieben, A., Versijpt, J., Stevens, M., & Duyck, W. (2015). Bilingualism delays clinical manifestation of Alzheimer's disease.Bilingualism: Language and Cognition18(03), 568-574.

Costa, A., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2014). How does the bilingual experience sculpt the brain?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(5), 336-345.

Olsen, R. K., Pangelinan, M. M., Bogulski, C., Chakravarty, M. M., Luk, G., Grady, C. L., & Bialystok, E. (2015). The effect of lifelong bilingualism on regional grey and white matter volume. Brain research1612, 128-139.

Saidi, L. G., & Ansaldo, A. I. (2015). Can a Second Language Help You in More Ways Than One?. AIMS neurosci1, 52-57.

Frontal Lobe: Areas, functions and disorders related to it

The brain is divided into four lobes, differentiated by their location and functions. In this article, we are going to focus on one of the lobes: the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the biggest lobe in the brain and the most important lobe for the human species. 

Why is the frontal lobe so relevant? What are its functions? The following article will give you an all-inclusive look on the frontal lobe. 

Frontal lobe

Frontal Lobe: Anatomy and Functions

The Frontal lobe is located at the front of the brain, at the front of each cerebral hemisphere and in front of the parietal lobe. It is considered the most important lobe due to its functions and because it takes up one-third of the total brain. In other species its volume is inferior (chimpanzees 17% and dogs 7%).

The functions of the frontal lobe depend on the area we focus on. It plays a part on movement control as well as in high-level mental functions or behavior and emotional control. The frontal lobe is divided into two main areas: the motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex.

Motor cortex in the frontal lobe

The main function of the motor cortex is to control voluntary movement, including the ones in expressive language, writing, and ocular movement. This cortex is divided into three areas:

Primary Motor Cortex

Sends commands to the neurons in the brain stems and spinal cord. These neurons are in charge of specific voluntary movements. Inside the primary motor cortex, of both hemispheres, there is a representation of the contralateral half of the body. That is, in each hemisphere, there is a representation of the opposite side of the body.This is known as the motor homunculus and it is inverted, therefore the head is represented at the bottom.

Premotor Cortex

This area is in control of the preparation and movement programming. Premotor cortex automates, harmonizes and archives movement programs related to previous experiences. Within the premotor cortex:

  • Supplementary motor area: in charge of controlling postural stability during stance or walking.
  • Ocular field: controls the joint deviation of the gaze when voluntary exploring a field.
Broca’s Area

It’s considered the center for producing speech, writing, and also in language processing and comprehension. It coordinates movements of the mouth, larynx and respiratory organs that control language expression. Injuries can produce different language disorders. 

Prefrontal Cortex of the Front lobe

The prefrontal cortex is located in the front part of the frontal lobe. It is considered the ultimate expression of human brain development. It is responsible for cognition, behavior and emotional activity. Prefrontal cortex receives information from the limbic system (involved in emotional control) and acts as a mediator between cognition and feelings through executive functions. Executive functions are a set of cognitive skills necessary for controlling and self-regulating your behavior. Within the prefrontal cortex, three areas or circuits are important: dorsolateral, anterior and orbital cingulum.

Dorsolateral area of the frontal lobe

It is one of the most recently evolved parts of the human brain. It establishes connections with the other three brain areas and transforms the information into thoughts, decisions, plans, and actions. It is in charge of superior cognitive abilities such as:

  • Attention: Focus, inhibition, and divided attention.
  • Working memory: maintenance and manipulation of the information.
  • Short-term memory: ordering events.
  • Prospective memory: programming upcoming actions.
  • Hypothesis generator: analysis of the possible outcomes.
  • Metacognition: self-analysis of cognitive activity and continuous performance.
  • Problem Resolution: analysis of the situation and development of an action plan.
  • Shifting: the ability to adapt to new situations.
  • Planning: organizing behavior towards a new objective.

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Anterior cingulum of the frontal lobe

This area regulates motivational processes. It’s also in charge of perceiving and resolving conflicts as well as regulating sustained attention.

Orbital area of the frontal lobe

This area is in charge of controlling emotion and social conduct. It regulates emotional processing, controls behaviors based on context and detects beneficial or detrimental change.

A neuroscientist explains the frontal lobe and the types of disorders that can happen after an injury.

Frontal Lobe: Disorders related to it

As we have explained, the frontal lobe is involved in different processes (motors, cognitive, emotional and behavioral). This is why disorders due to injuries suffered to this area can vary from concussion symptoms to others more severe.

Motor disorders

Injuries to the primary or premotor cortex can cause difficulties in the velocity, execution and movement coordination, all leading to different types of apraxia. Apraxia is a disorder in which the individual has difficulty with the motor planning to perform tasks or movements when asked, provided that the request or command is understood and he/she is willing to perform the task. A University of Toronto scientist has discovered the brain’s frontal lobe is involved in pain transmission to the spine. If his findings in animals bear out in people, the discovery could lead to a new class of non-addictive painkillers.

  • Ideomotor apraxia: Deficits or difficulty in their ability to plan or complete previously learned motor actions, especially those that need an instrument or prop. They are able to explain how to perform an action but can’t act out a movement.
  • Limb-kinetic apraxia: voluntary movements of extremities are impaired. For example, they can’t use their fingers in a coordinated fashion (waving).
  • Buccofacial or orofacial apraxia: Difficulty carrying out movements of the face, tongue, mouth, cheeks, etc. on demand.

Apart from the apraxias, other disorders can be developed from injuries to the frontal lobe, such as language disorders or aphasias.

  • Transcortical Motor Aphasia: language disorder due to which the person has a lack of verbal fluency (slow speech with reduced content and poorly organized), limited spontaneous language (lack of initiative) and difficulty or incapacity in writing.
  • Broca’s Aphasia: language disorder that generates a lack of verbal fluency, anomia (inability to access the lexicon to evoke words), poor syntactic construction in speech, difficulties in repetition, reading and writing.

Dysexecutive syndrome

It consists of a group of symptoms, cognitive, behavioral and emotional that tend to happen together. However, the symptoms are going to depend on the injured area:

Dorsolateral Area

An injury in this area is usually related to cognitive problems such as:

  1. Inability to solve complex problems: decrease in fluid intelligence (reasoning, adapting and resolving of new situations, etc.).
  2. Cognitive rigidity and perseveration: the person maintains a thought or action despite being invited to change it.
  3. Decreased learning ability: difficulty in acquiring and maintaining new learning.
  4. Temporal memory impairment: deficit in the order things happened
  5. Deficiency in motor programming and changing motor activities: difficulties in the organization of sequences of movements and the time to change an activity.
  6. A decrease in verbal fluidity: impairment in the ability to recall words after an instruction. This action not only requires the lexical part but also organization, planning, focus and selective attention.
  7. Attention Deficit: difficulty maintaining your attention and inhibiting other irrelevant stimuli or changing the focus of attention.
  8. Pseudo-depressive disorders: similar symptoms to depression (sadness, apathy, etc.).
Anterior cingulum area
  1. Reduction of spontaneous activity: appear to be static.
  2. A loss in initiative and motivation: noticeable apathy.
  3. Alexithymia: difficulty identifying emotions and therefore inability in expressing own emotions.
  4. Language restriction: answers tend to be monosyllabic.
  5. Difficulty in controlling interference: selective attention impairment.
  6. Pseudo-depressive disorders. 
Orbital area

The symptoms of an injury in this area are more behavioral. The person’s behavior tends to be uninhibited.

  1. Changes in personality: high instability between who he is and how he acts. Similar to what happened to Phineas Gage. 
  2. Irritability and aggressiveness: exaggerated emotional reactions in daily life situations.
  3. Echopraxia: imitation of observed movements in others.
  4. Disinhibition and impulsivity: lack of self-control over their behavior.
  5. Difficulty adapting to social norms and rules: behaves socially unacceptable.
  6. Judgment is impaired: many reasoning errors.
  7. Lack of empathy: difficulty understanding other people’s feelings.
  8. Euphoria
 The frontal lobe is incredibly important for humans to function to their full potential. Even without brain injury, it’s crucial to maintain our cognitive skills active. CogniFit offers a complete assessment of your cognitive skills and brain training not only as a rehabilitation due to injury, dementia, etc. but it can also strengthen your current neural patterns. Brain health is essential to lead a full life.
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This article is originally in Spanish written by Natalia Pasquin Mora, translated by Alejandra Salazar.