Hello, Bonjour, Hola! What’s happening to my brain?

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day 2016, DiscovHER showcases the work of Professor Kara Morgan-Short, who is making big strides in language research, using electrophysiology to examine how our brain acquire new knowledge. Along with her colleagues, she taught a group of second-language learners an artificial language constructed by linguists, in order to observe language acquisition and how human beings learn.

We often think of Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology as tools that tell us about the inner workings of our hearts and whether we might need elbow surgery. But, new research is proving that they can also unveil the mysteries of what happens in our brains – from the moment we hear a new language to its comprehension and eventually, its production. 

A Swedish study published in 2012 revealed some of the visible effects of language learning on the brain. A group of adult military recruits were taught Arabic, Russian, or Dari, while the control group – medical and cognitive science students – studied other rigorous subjects for the same amount of time. Results showed that certain parts of the brains of the military recruits developed in size, while the brain size of the control group remained the same. "We were surprised that different parts of the brain developed to different degrees depending on how well the students performed and how much effort they had had to put in to keep up with the course," stated Johan Mårtensson, one of the researchers involved in the study.

By examining MRI brain scans, scientists can observe which areas of the brain are active during specific learning tasks, giving us invaluable insight into how exactly our brains acquire and retain new knowledge. Professor Kara Morgan-Short is utilizing electrophysiology in her own impactful study.

Along with her colleagues, Morgan-Short taught second-language learners to speak an artificial language, in order to test theories of language learnability through a controlled experiment. One group learned the language in a traditional classroom setting, while the other was immersed in everyday conversations, in the style of native language learning. The test subjects then wore caps studded with electrodes, and Morgan-Short analysed the brain waves in relation to what the research groups were hearing. The immersed group’s neural signatures appeared to be similar to those of native speakers, and they continued to score well on the artificial language tests even several months after their exposure had ended. Speaking to the implications of her research, Morgan-Short states, “this brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.” 

Essentially, this research can tell us whether certain individuals learn better from formal instruction or from language immersion – or perhaps a combination of both! The significance of these types of brain-based studies may go even further. Canadian research found evidence to support the claim that bilinguals are diagnosed later in life with Alzheimer’s and dementia than monolinguals. In other words, learning a second language could help us to maintain our mental health and stay cognitively creative and mentally flexible for longer.

Thoughts about the implications of this research? 

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For Women in Science

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