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article imageEssential Science: Learning languages and shaping our brains

By Tim Sandle     Apr 5, 2021 in Science
This week’s Essential Science looks at the latest research into linguistics, especially in terms of how we learn languages during our formative years. Much of the focus of the research is on changes to the brain.
Linguistics refers to the scientific study of language. This includes probing the unconscious knowledge that humans have about language. Also, with considering how children acquire language. Plus, the structure of language in general and of particular languages through different societies.
Despite the myriad of different global languages, linguistics explains that most types of language can be sorted into two categories. The first includes those, like English, where the basic sentence form is subject-verb-object ("the girl kicks the ball"). The second group includes those like Japanese, where the basic sentence form is subject-object-verb ("the girl the ball kicks").
An employee of the electoral monitoring committee watches a televised speech of a Lebanese parliamen...
An employee of the electoral monitoring committee watches a televised speech of a Lebanese parliamentary candidate and records the time of his speech at the headquarters of the committee in Beirut on April 11, 2018
An applied area of linguistics is focused on examining what changes take place in the brain, such as with learning different languages or reacting to external stimuli. These understandings can assist with the treatment of different forms of mental illness, as an example.
Some recent developments in the field are considered.
Cumulative-enhancement model of language acquisition
Research looking into the brains of multilingual people finds they have trained their brains to learn languages. The lasting aspect of this is that it makes it easier for people equipped with these skills to acquire more new languages once they have grasped the basics of a second or third language.
old women talking
old women talking
In terms of what is taking place speed is the key determinant. The University of Tokyo scientists found that for multilinguals the pattern of brain activation is similar to that for bilinguals. However, the activation process within the left frontal lobe that facilitates the learning of language is much more sensitive, and much faster.
The level of brain activity changes, however following the first few months of studying a new language. It seems that acquiring a new language initially boosts brain activity, which then reduces as language skills improve.
The study contributes to neuroscientific evidence that maintains that language skills are additive. This referred to as the theory of cumulative-enhancement, which is a model of language acquisition.
The research appears in the journal Scientific Reports, under the title “Enhanced activations in syntax-related regions for multilinguals while acquiring a new language.”
Multilingual babies also prefer ‘baby talk’
Continuing with the subject of multiple languages, are there special techniques that parents need to adopt if they wish to teach a baby more than one language? The answer seems to be not really, in that babies still respond best to ‘baby talk’.
New research from University of California - Los Angeles, has revealed that babies prefer so-called baby talk, irrespective of whether they are learning one language or two. It had previously been established that infants learning one language seem to prefer the sing-song tones of their parents' baby talk.
Screenshot of babies with pacifier
Screenshot of babies with pacifier
laurenseger via YouTube
It has not been established that babies learning two languages are developmentally on the same track. Here, bilingual babies express the same interest in baby talk, when compared with monolingual babies of the same age.
The research was based on field work at multiple sites, indicating that the development of learning and attention is similar in infants, irrespective of the number of languages that parents speak and communicate to the infant.
As to which word and with which language the baby will speak is less significant that it might appear for the baby can understand more words than he or she first verbalizes. Babies can recognise combinations of words even before they have uttered their first word. In addition, infants extract and store more than just single words from everyday speech.
The study appears in Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science, where it is titled “A multi-lab study of bilingual infants: Exploring the preference for infant-directed speech.”
Drawing insights from subconscious visual stimuli
Scientists at KU Leuven have uncovered what happens in animals' brains when they learn from subconscious, visual stimuli. The significance of this with the knowledge potentially leading to new treatments for a number of conditions in humans.
A fractal image – Benoit Mandelbrot  who has died aged 85  was the mathematical genius behind frac...
A fractal image – Benoit Mandelbrot, who has died aged 85, was the mathematical genius behind fractals
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The experimental data shows the more blood flow, the more activity that is taking place as an animal reacts to visual cues. Brain scans have identified that the tasks which cause the most activity in the visual cortex of the brain and also with identifying more precisely those areas of the brain that are most important for memory, down to the neuronal level in these brain areas.
With this, occurrences of trauma, the process of ageing or oncological problems could benefit where an increase in brain plasticity, that is the ability to change, could prove to be very useful in a treatment regime.
The findings appear in the journal Neuron, with the study headed: “Electrical stimulation of the macaque ventral tegmental area drives category-selective learning without attention.”
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal's long running Essential Science series. Each week we take a more detailed look at an important and topical science subject.
A woman walks with her dog next to roman numerals for NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game in Hoboken...
A woman walks with her dog next to roman numerals for NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game in Hoboken, New Jersey
Last week’s Essential Science, looked at some interesting findings in relation to numbers and maths. Having a basic familiarity with numbers is essential for understanding the world and for interpreting the news, and especially when seeking to challenge one viewpoint with an alternative one.
The week before, the subject was digital technology and machine learning. These processes offer insights in understanding how animals behave and act, and also how they learn. In recent months, some interesting scientific studies have been produced.
More about Linguistics, Speech, Language, Brain, Development
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