Understanding How the Brain Speaks Two Languages

Learning to speak was the most remarkable thing you ever did. It wasn’t just the 50,000 words you had to master to become fluent or the fact that for the first six years of your life you learned about three new words per day. It was the tenses and the syntax and the entire scaffolding of grammar, not to mention the metaphors and allusions and the almost-but-not-quite synonyms. But you accomplished it, and good for you. Now imagine doing it two or three times over — becoming bilingual, trilingual or more. The mind of the polyglot is a very particular thing, and scientists are only beginning to look closely at how acquiring a second language influences learning, behavior and the very structure of the brain itself. At a bilingualism conference last weekend convened by the Lycée Français de New York, where all students learn in both English and French, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, language experts gathered to explore where the science stands so far and where it’s heading next (disclosure: my children are LFNY students). Humans are crude linguists from the moment of birth — and perhaps even in the womb — to the extent at least that we can hear spoken sounds and begin to recognize different combinations language sounds. At first, we don’t much care which of these phonemes from which languages we absorb, which makes sense since the brain has to be ready to learn any of the world’s thousands of languages depending on where we’re born. “Before 9 months of age, a baby produces a babble made up of hundreds of phonemes from hundreds of languages,” said Elisabeth Cros, a speech therapist with the Ecole Internationale de New York. “Parents will react to the phonemes they recognize from their native tongues, which reinforces the baby’s use of those selected ones.” (MORE: How Terror Hijacks the Brain) Doubling down on a pair of languages rather than just one does take extra work, but it’s work young children are generally not aware they’re doing. Bilingual people of all … Continue reading Understanding How the Brain Speaks Two Languages