Various Studies Have Been Conducted On How Multilingual People Manage Multiple Languages In Their Minds, Which Has Led To Surprising Insights Into Brain Function.
Speaking a second or even a third language can have apparent advantages, But sometimes words, grammar, and even accents may get mixed up. This phenomenon can reveal amazing things about how our brain works.
I, Nicole Chung, a BBC columnist, am standing in line at my neighborhood pastry shop in Paris, apologizing to the confused shopkeeper. He asked me how many sweets I wanted, and I accidentally answered in Mandarin instead of French. I get equally confusing: I speak English well and haven’t used much Mandarin in years. However, where I should have spoken French, Mandarin somehow decided to re-introduce itself.
Multilingual people can usually easily manage the multiple languages they master, But sometimes accidental slips can happen, and the science behind it reveals surprising insights into how our brains work. The research on how multilingual people manage more than one language in their minds is complex and sometimes counter-intuitive.
It has been found that when a multilingual person tries to speak, even if he only uses one of the languages, the languages he knows are activated simultaneously. These languages can interfere, for example, entering speech when you least expect it. This interference can manifest not only in vocabulary slips but even at the level of grammar or accent. Mathieu de Klerk, a senior researcher at the Autonomous University of Brussels, says:
We know from past research that as a bilingual or multilingual person, all the languages you know are activated whenever you speak. For example, when you want to say dog as an English-French bilingual, not only does the word dog start, but also it’s equivalent in French, Chien.
Therefore, the speaker needs some language control process.
If you think about it, the ability of bilingual and multilingual people to separate the languages they have learned is fantastic. How they do the concept of inhibition usually explains this, that is, the suppression of unrelated languages.
When a bilingual volunteer is asked to say a color showed on a screen in one language and the next color in another, a spike in electrical activity can be seen in areas of the brain that deal with language and conscious attention. , measured. However, when this control system fails, intrusions and slippages may occur. For example, ineffective inhibition of one language can cause unwanted language to appear in your speech when you intend to speak another language.
Instead of different languages being turned on and off, they are always active in our brains, and unwanted speech is inhibited.
Declercq is not unfamiliar with the accidental mixing of languages. When he worked in Germany, his trip home to Belgium could cover several different language areas and was a considerable exercise in his language switching skills. The Belgian vocabulary includes Dutch, English, German and French words. He says:
The first part was in German, and then I was on a Belgian train, and the second part was in French. Then when I was passing through Brussels, the language would change to Dutch, my mother tongue. Therefore, during these three hours, I changed my speech every time the train conductor visited. I always somehow answered in the wrong language.
It was challenging to manage.
Researchers often use language-switching scenarios in the laboratory to understand better how multilingual people control their languages. Errors can be a great way to gain insight into how languages are operated and maintained.
Tamar Golan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, has been studying language control in bilingual people for years. His research has often led to unexpected findings. He says:
One of the unique things I’ve seen in bilingual people when mixing languages is that sometimes they seem to inhibit the dominant language so much that, in some situations, their speech slows down.
In other words, a multilingual person’s dominant language is sometimes more suppressed in specific scenarios. For example, in the color naming experiment described earlier, recalling a word from the first language may take longer when transferred from the second language.
In one of his experiments, Golan analyzed the language switching abilities of Spanish-English bilinguals; In this way, he asked them to read aloud paragraphs that were only in English, only in Spanish, and sections that were a random mixture of both languages.
The findings were surprising. Even though the text was right in front of the participants, they made intrusion errors when reading aloud. For example, they accidentally used the Spanish word pero instead of the English word.
These types of errors almost always occurred when they read paragraphs that included two languages that required switching between languages.
Even more surprising was that a large proportion of penetration errors were not words the participants had skipped. Using eye-tracking technology, Golan and his team found that these errors occurred even when participants looked directly at the target word. Although most participants were fluent in English, they made more of these errors with English words than with Spanish, where they were weaker; What Golan describes is almost like a reversal of linguistic dominance. He says:
The best analogy is to imagine a situation where you suddenly get better at writing with your non-dominant hand. We call this reverse phenomenon dominance.
When adults are immersed in a new language, it becomes harder for them to access words in their native language. This phenomenon may even happen when we are learning a second language. “The effects of reverse fluency can be particularly evident when bilinguals switch between languages in their conversation,” Golan says. When mixing languages, he explains, multilingual move in a balance that over-inhibits the more robust language. He says:
Bilinguals try to make both languages almost equally available, and they do this by suppressing the dominant speech to facilitate the transition between languages. Still, they sometimes do too much inhibition and cause the dominant language to emerge more slowly than the non-dominant language.
The rapid transition between languages is when the most linguistic interference can occur, affecting not only words but also grammar and pronunciation.
Golan’s experiments have also shown reverse dominance in another language area, namely pronunciation. The participants sometimes use the words in the correct language, But they read with the wrong accent. Again, this was more the case with English than Spanish words. Golan says: “Sometimes bilingual people produce the correct word; “But with the wrong accent; that’s a fascinating distinction that tells you that linguistic control is applied at different levels of processing and that there’s a separation between determining the accent and determining the lexicon from which you’re pulling words.”
Even our use of grammar in our native language can be affected in surprising ways, especially if we are heavily immersed in a different language environment. Christina Kasparian, author, translator, and researcher who studied the neuroscience of language at Canada’s McGill University, says:
The brain is flexible and adaptable. When you are immersed in a second language, it affects the way you perceive and processes your native language.
Casparian and colleagues studied native Italians who had immigrated to Canada and learned English as adults. All of them reported that their Italian was being forgotten and that they did not use it much daily.
Participants were shown a set of sentences in Italian and asked to rate their plausibility.
Meanwhile, their brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG). Compared Their answers with those of a group of monolingual Italian speakers living in Italy. Kasparian says:
There were four different sentence types, two of which were acceptable in Italian and English, and two were only in Italian.
When the Italian sentence did not grammatically match the English sentence, Italian immigrants were more likely to reject the correct Italian sentence as having a grammatical error. The better their English skills, the longer they had lived in Canada, and the less Italian they used, the more likely they were to find Italian sentences grammatically incorrect.
Immigrant Italians also showed different patterns of brain activity compared to Italians living in Italy. Kasparian and colleagues used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record participants’ brain activity to capture a millisecond snapshot of their brain’s electrical activity as they processed language.
They found that when participants were presented with grammatically acceptable sentences only in Italian (but not in English), Italians living in Canada had a different brain activity pattern than those living in Italy. Their brain activity was more in line with what would be expected of English speakers, Kasparian says. It suggests that their brains processed the sentences differently than their monolingual counterparts living in Italy.
Casparian explains that English relies more on words than Italian, and immigrants relied more on English grammatical cues even if they were reading Italian.
The first language can also change, Even if it is a language you have used every day for most of your life.
Immersion in a foreign language is often the best way to learn it, But it can temporarily weaken your native language.
Of course, most multilingual people can retain the grammar of their mother tongue well. Still, Kasperian’s study and other studies that have been done show that our languages are not static throughout our lives but are constantly changing and competing and interfering with each other. Navigating such interference may be part of what makes learning a new language difficult for adults, significantly if they grew up as monolinguals. Matt Goldrick, professor of linguistics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says:
Every time you try to speak a new language, other languages are ready to pop up. You have to learn to control what you would never naturally control. Therefore, this skill is challenging to develop and is why it is so difficult to learn a second language in adulthood.
One thing that may help in learning a second language is immersion in a foreign language environment. Goldrick says:
You create an environment where the other language is strongly inhibited, and you practice a lot of interfering with the different languages so that space is designed for the new language to become stronger. Then after you come back from that immersion experience, you can better manage that competition. This competition never ends, and you get better at managing it.
Managing competition is something that multitaskers usually have a lot of practice.
Many researchers argue that it is associated with specific cognitive advantages. However, no definitive conclusions have yet been reached, and other researchers say their research does not provide reliable evidence of the mental benefits of being bilingual.
In any case, using language is one of the most complex activities that humans learn how to do. In many studies, depending on the task and age, the need to manage multiple languages has been associated with cognitive advantages.
Some studies have shown that bilinguals perform better in executive control tasks. For example, in activities where participants have to focus on conflicting information speaking multiple languages has been linked to delayed onset of dementia symptoms. In addition, being multilingual has the social advantage of being able to talk to more people.