Does the language we’re born into change our brains?

If you’ve ever travelled through a country with a different native language to your own, you’d have noticed the foreign-sounding inflections, and rises and falls in tone.

The English language is part of the Indo-European languages grouping, which contains many of the European languages (German, French, Celtic, Baltic and Slavic languages, for example). Listening to someone speak Hungarian (a language from the Uralic family – which also, incidentally, contains Finnish), you might struggle to know where sentences or even words begin and end. You might even feel like your brain is just wired differently.

Not so, says a recent study, led by PhD candidate Saima Malik-Moraleda and research assistant Dima Ayyash from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, which has shown that our brains appear to function pretty much the same, regardless of the language.

Alice in wonderland book. 1st edition. Johnathan brady 2
A first edition of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Participants listened to translated sections of this text. Credit: . Johnathan Brady/Getty Images

The team recruited 43 males and 43 females, all right-handed and between the ages of 19 and 45. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), the team investigated the way the brain responded to two main language listening tasks: translated passages from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and five-minute stories in their specific native language. Participants also listened to degraded passages of text (in which words weren’t discernible) and passages of text in languages with which they were unfamiliar. They also performed arithmetic and spatial working memory tasks.

A functional mri image can show areas responding to stimuli such as native language.
Functional MRI shows real-time images of increased activity in the brain. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

When participants performed the listening tasks in their native language, the MIT researchers noted increased activity in the frontal temporal and parietal cortex of the participant’s brains. As Malik-Moraleda explains, “when participants listen to their native language while in the MRI, their language areas in the brain are more active and therefore required more oxygen; we can detect this rush of oxygen to the language areas in the scanner”.

According to Dr Lila Landowski, lecturer and neuroscientist at the University of Tasmania, and Director of the Australian Society for Medical Research, who was not involved in this study, the frontal lobe is responsible for “decision-making, emotions, understanding meaning and the fundamental things that make us ‘human’”, whilst the parietal lobe and cortex and the temporal cortexes are involved in “sensation and feeling, and hearing, long-term memory and language”.

Malik-Moraleda and Ayyash also noted that unlike the spatial working memory and arithmetic tasks, there was a strong response in the left side of the brain when performing the native language listening tasks. According to Landowski, this is the location of Wernicke’s area – a part of the temporal cortex responsible for understanding the meaning of what someone is saying. Interestingly, in left-handed people Wernicke’s area has a higher tendency to be located in the brain’s right hemisphere.

It’s worth remembering that the idea that people are better at particular subjects or tasks because they are left- or right-brained has been debunked. Whilst certain areas of the brain tend to be more actively involved in particular types of tasks or functions (such as listening, memory, comprehension, sensation etc), Landowski warns that there is no evidence that this works backwards – for example attributing skills in mathematics, languages, music or sport, as right- or left-brained.

Malik-Moraleda and Ayyash’s study covered 45 native languages – many from language families other than the already much-researched Indo-European languages, giving a deeper and richer view of languages across the world.

Importantly, they have made their tools available to the wider linguistic academic community in the hope that future studies might address science and application on “language learning, or speech pathology, or other important open questions”.

Malik-Moraleda also hopes to extend the study to even more languages: “As a speaker of languages that are under-represented (such as my native Kashmiri), I am incredibly excited that we are finally taking cross-linguistic work more seriously. If anyone reading this would love their native language to be included, please get in touch, we’d love your help and collaboration!”

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