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How the Human Brain Processes Language

By Alain – on in News, Culture
Does speaker multiple languages make your brain larger and other fascinating facts about the silent aspect of human language.

Researchers have known for more than 100 year that human capacity to communicate using language can be traced to processes that take place in two specific areas of the left hemisphere of the brain: The Broca’s area, which is responsible for the production of speech and associated articulation, and the Wernicke’s area, which is responsible for the comprehension of meaning. If either of these areas is damaged, for example, through trauma or a stroke, an inability to communicate effectively can ensue.

However, over the last ten years, our understanding of human language has been somewhat convoluted by a new discovery; namely, language processing is not restricted to just one side of the brain and the more languages an individual learns, the more the brain grows.

Read the following sentence: “I cooked a delicious soup.”

As you read the sentence, it’s highly likely that neurons associated with smell and taste will be activated. As it is practically impossible to conceive anything without involving some form of language—be this internal monologue or talking aloud—language acts as a pervasive source that has a far-reaching impact on our lives.

So, let’s return to the idea that bilingual people have larger brains. Is this really the case?

Researchers have established that people who can speak two languages use different neural pathways for each language, and both are active at the same time when language is in use. As a result, bilingual people are continually required to suppress one of the languages so that they can process their thoughts in another. While this takes place subconsciously, it involves effort and computation power.

The first study to discover the way in which the human brain processes multiple languages emerged in 1999, when bilingual English-Russian subjects were asked to manipulate a set of objects that were placed on the table in front of them. One of these objects was a marker, and another was a stamp. In Russian, the participants were instructed to “put the stamp below the cross.” This caused issues because the Russian word for “stamp” is “marka”, which is very similar to “marker.” The eye-tracking that was performed during the study revealed that the bilingual participants looked at both the stamp and the marker pen several times before selecting the stamp.

Research also indicates that the neural patterns of a language we develop during language learning remain eternally imprinted in our brains, even if we do not continue to actively speak the language we have learned. For example, brain scans that were performed on Chinese children who were adopted and removed from China while they were preverbal reveal that they demonstrate neural recognition of Chinese vowels many years later, even though they have never spoken a word of the language.

As such, even if we are not able to actively speak a language that we once learned, it’s highly likely that it is still etched somewhere on our brains. This raises the question as to whether it will be possible to employ technology to disentangle the human brain’s vocabulary, ideas, and thoughts, even in situations in which people can not physically speak. Some neurologists have already achieved a degree of success in this area. For example, some scientists have developed a device that can vocalize your inner monologue, while others have created a system by which a user can control a cursor on a monitor using thoughts alone.

While the idea that we can bypass language altogether may seem alarming to some people, for others, it could fundamentally transform life. For example, having an opportunity to communicate without speech could have amazing implications for people with motor neuron or locked-in syndrome.

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Alain

Alain obtained a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science before taking a certificate in communication. Although this excellent popularizer could have been found on television commenting on weather changes, he feels most comfortable behind a computer screen. He particularly likes to inform people about the climate crisis.