This week at the Linguistica International blog, we’re going all highbrow with some real, genuine science. Don’t worry, normal service will be resumed soon, but for the next few minutes, we’re going to concern ourselves with where language actually exists in the brain. Externally, language is all around us, to quote a Wet Wet Wet song, ‘it’s everywhere we go’, but where does it actually exist inside us?
You probably won’t need us to tell you that the brain is a very clever thing. If you read a sentence about catching a ball, the neurons related to the motor function in your hands and arms will be activated in your brain. Pretty clever, right? The same can be said if you talk about eating chips, in this case the neurons related to smelling will fire up.
In life, language infiltrates our brains like no other skill. The truth is that it’s almost impossible to do anything without language, whether it’s simply following some instructions, or using our inner voice to talk us through every aspect of our lives.
The left side of the brain
More than a century ago, neurologists established that our capacity to use language is located in the left hemisphere of the brain, and more specifically, in Broca’s area (associated with speech production and articulation) and Wernicke’s area (associated with comprehension). Any damage to either of these areas, which can be caused b y a stroke or a head injury, can lead to speech problems and even a loss of language altogether.
However, in the last decade, researchers have discovered that it’s not quite as simple as that. Language is not just restricted to these two areas of the brain, or in fact just the one hemisphere. And even more startling still, they have learnt that the brain can actually grow when we learn a new language.
Different words trigger separate parts of the brain
In a recent study, neurologists tried to create a 3D atlas of words to show which words trigger each part of the brain.
The results show that a pattern exists in terms of the region of the brain that is triggered by particular word meanings. Although the research was conducted in the English language, previous research suggests that words with the same meaning in different languages will trigger the same parts of the brain.
Bilinguals are constantly suppressing a language
Evidence also emerged in an experiment in 1999 that bilingual speakers have different neural pathways for each of their languages, and that both are active when either language is used. This means that bilingual speakers are continuously subconsciously suppressing one of their languages to focus on the most relevant one. The research also shows that these neural pathways are imprinted on the brains of bilinguals forever, even if the second language is not used and subsequently lost after it has been used. So, even if we think we’ve lost the ability to speak a language, it’s footprints remain in the neurological pathways of our minds.
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