Your Native Language May Wire the Brain in Unique Ways

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

It’s hardly surprising that modern languages and their respective words change over time. History and literature have demonstrated this repeatedly.

Something that is less clear, however, is the degree to which a given language changes and shapes its human speakers. (It’s an important question, considering there are roughly 7,000 languages currently active on Earth.)

To put it more specifically: Might native French speakers, for example, tend to think a particular way because of the language they know, while speakers of Mandarin, English, Māori and other languages each see themselves and the world in ways that correlate with their first language?

Researchers have tried testing versions of this idea, propelling forward the neuroscience behind language and human communication. Meanwhile, plenty of anthropologists and second-language speakers have witnessed unique patterns.

The Brain’s Universal Language Network

Neuroscientists in recent years have identified what they call the universal language network in the human brain.

Essentially, this refers to a region with neural architecture that looks remarkably similar across cultures and different human groups.

Angela Friederici, with the Max Planck Institute, has described the concept this way: “I assume that language faculty is based on a genetically predetermined structural neural network,” she said at a Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual conference.

“We have a fixed biological program for the development.”

Testing Across 45 Languages

A study by other researchers published last year in Nature Neuroscience advanced this idea by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on native speakers of 45 different languages across 12 different language families. 

That work concluded that key properties in the brain’s language network were consistent, despite vast differences in the first languages spoken.

The researchers described the landmark findings this way: “This work lays a critical foundation for future in-depth cross-linguistic comparisons along various dimensions of interest.”

While that research identified a neuro-pattern across languages, other experts underscore unique patterns behind how we speak and think.

Read More: The Scientific Reason Singers Have a Knack for Language

The Influence of Verbs and Nouns

Neyooxet Greymorning, who specializes in anthropological linguistics and language rejuvenation at the University of Montana, has scrutinized the differences between English and many Native American languages.

One recurring pattern is the dominance of nouns in English, compared to the emphasis on verbs in many Indigenous languages, such as Potawatomi and Arapaho.

“There are not a lot of true nouns in Arapaho,” says Greymorning, who is bilingual.

Take the English noun cement, as an example. Greymorning says the equivalent expression in Arapaho, bee3e’inoo’oo’, actually means “it has hardened.” Similarly, the English word chair translates more accurately to “a place where you sit.” 

Thinking Like the Language

These phrasing differences, Greymorning says, when applied thousands of times over across all expressions, surely inform the way that an Arapaho speaker sees the world.

“Not only does the language give you aspects or the nature of something, but it’s also giving you something about the nature of the environment that you live within,” he says.

He adds that he has witnessed students begin to process and solve problems differently as their language learning progresses. And indeed, studies have demonstrated that bilingual children perform better when it comes to solving problems.

This is all part of the reason Greymorning developed what has become known as Accelerated Second Language Acquisition.

The teaching method is designed to help preserve and revitalize disappearing Indigenous languages. It’s been effectively used with dozens of communities around the world, and it’s even been tested on dolphins in the Bahamas.

“It changes the whole way that the brain thinks,” Greymorning says.

Read More: How Learning a Language Changes Your Brain

MRIs Measuring Brain Differences

Separate from Greymorning’s work, just this February a team at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science published a study that indicates how a person’s native language can influence structural development of the brain and its connections.

That study centered around the neuroanatomy of nearly 100 people within two groups: native lifelong speakers of German and native lifelong speakers of Arabic.

The two languages were chosen because each is derived from a vastly different language family.

After using MRIs to observe white matter fiber pathways in the participants’ brains, the researchers identified that factors such as syntax and grammatical structure in each language seemed to correlate with stronger brain connectivity in particular brain regions. 

While it’s hardly a one-to-one example of the findings Greymorning witnesses in his language-learning students, this research adds quantifiable data to the types of ideas that anthropologists and behavioral scientists have long speculated about.

A Different Language Lens

On a more relatable level, this research probes similar patterns that any English speaker might notice when learning a Latin-based language like Spanish or French.

In English, for example, it’s common to say I am hungry. While, in Spanish, the equivalent expression, yo tengo hambre, more literally translates to I have hunger

Logically, this Spanish version makes sense, given that to have hunger implies a temporary state of being. This same sort of phrasing applies to other expressions, too, such as yo tengo miedo, which translates to I have fear.

The English phrases, I am afraid or I am hungry, on the other hand, make no distinction between a temporary state and a more permanent state of being, such as, I am human.

Obviously, with time and exposure to any language, the human brain can figure out these nuances and quirks.

But many valid questions remain as to how fundamentally these linguistic differences shape how we see the world and view ourselves in it.

Read More: Early Life Experiences May Have Affected Your Brain Wiring

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