How The Brain Harnesses Us To Speak Bilingually Or Multilingually

Being able to speak a second or even a third language can be beneficial, but occasionally we mix words, grammar, and even accents from different languages. This phenomenon can reveal how our brains work, and some of the findings can be quite surprising.

When I lined up to buy bread at the bakery near my home in Paris, I apologized to the owner who was confused. Because he had just asked me how much I was going to buy, I answered him in Chinese Mandarin completely and unintentionally instead of in French. I was also confused because I used to speak English, and Mandarin hadn't been spoken well in years. Unexpectedly, in this authentic Parisian environment, Mandarin came out coldly, reminding me that it was my mother tongue.

Multilingual people can often easily switch to a language they are familiar with. But sometimes, unexpected slips of the tongue can also occur. Studying the reasons behind this phenomenon reveals how our brains work, and some of the findings are quite surprising.

Studying how quickly the brains of multilingualists switch languages is a complex task that sometimes leads to just the opposite of your instinctive expectations. The study found that when a person who has mastered multiple languages wants to speak, even if they only intend to use one language, all the languages they know can be activated at the same time, flooding into their minds. Different languages may interfere with each other, such as when you speak another language involuntarily. It's not just the vocabulary that's being disturbed, but even grammar or accents.

Mathieu Declerck, a senior researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, said, "We have found that if you are bilingual or multilingual, whenever you speak, the two or more languages you master will all start. For example, if you speak both French and English, when you want to say the word dog, you think not only of the English word 'dog', but also of the French word 'chien' of dogs. ”

Therefore, multilingualists need to have some kind of language-controlled behavior. If you think about it, the ability of bilinguals and multilinguals to distinguish between the multiple languages they have learned should be quite remarkable. How is this done? This can be explained by the concept of inhibition mechanisms, namely the brain's ability to constrain unrelated languages. In one experiment that asked a bilingual volunteer to say the color displayed on the screen in one language and then the next color in another, it was possible to measure that the current activity of the volunteer brain in processing language and focusing on consciousness peaked.

However, if this suppression system fails, language jamming and errors can occur. For example, when you want to speak in one language, if the brain does not inhibit another language enough, it will cause the language to "bubble up" and interfere with the language you want to use.

De Clay himself is no stranger to the experience of mixing languages from time to time. The Belgian is a native of several languages, including Dutch, English, German and French. When he used to work in Germany, his regular train trip back to Belgium could pass through several different language areas, which was a great exercise in his language switching skills.

"The first is the German-speaking area, I spoke German when I stepped on a Belgian train, and the second time the train entered the French-speaking area, it was necessary to speak French," he said. Then arrived in Brussels, and the train converted French to Dutch again, which is my native language. So during the three hours of traveling, every time a conductor checked the ticket, I had to change the language. For some reason, I always respond with the wrong language. My language switching response can't keep up with the change in the language area. ”

In fact, researchers often switch language scenarios (but in the lab rather than on trains) to understand how multilingualists control the use of their language. Slips of the tongue in volunteers are a great way to gain insight into how we use and control the language we know.

Tamar Gollan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, has been studying the mechanisms of language control in bilinguals for years. Her research often yields some unexpected findings.

"I think one of the most unique situations we've seen among bilinguals is that when they mix languages, sometimes it seems that the inhibition of their best language is so great that speaking in the dominant language in a particular context is slowed down," she said. ”

In other words, the first language of a person who can speak multiple languages is sometimes more affected in some cases. For example, in the aforementioned named color experiment, participants who switched from their second language to first language and ended up saying the color word in the first language took longer than they would take to switch backwards and speak in the second language.

In one of her experiments, Golan asked bilinguals who could speak Spanish and English to read English passages aloud, Spanish passages, and passages that were randomly mixed with English and Spanish to analyze their language conversion skills.

The results of the study were astonishing. Even when reading aloud to the manuscript, participants would still experience an "intrusive slip of the tongue" in another language, for example, a "but" that was supposed to be read in English was misinterpreted as "pero" in Spanish. These types of slips of the tongue occur almost exclusively when they read mixed language passages aloud and need to switch between languages.

Even more surprising is that a large part of the slips of mouth caused by these language intrusions are not at all the words that the participants "missed." Using eye-tracking technology, Golan and her team found that such slips of the tongue occurred even when participants looked directly at the target word.

Although most of the participants spoke English, they made more intrusive slips of the tongue in English words than their weaker Spanish. Golan explained that it was almost like a reversal of the status of the first language.

"I think the best analogy is to imagine you're writing with a non-dominant hand and suddenly writing better than your dominant hand," she says. We've always called this the reversal of dominant language. We take this phenomenon very seriously, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that it is so unique, so extraordinary. ”

This phenomenon can occur even when we learn a second language, and if adults are so preoccupied with the new language, they find it difficult to remember words in their native language.

Golan said that if bilinguals switch between two languages in a one-time conversation, the reversal effect of dominant language is particularly pronounced. She explains that multilinguals look for a balance when mixing languages, inhibiting stronger languages to achieve balance, but sometimes they go too far in the wrong direction.

"Bilinguals will try to suppress dominant languages and make it easier to alternate between two languages so that both languages can be used equally freely," she says. But they sometimes 'cross' the inhibition line, resulting in a slower response to the dominant language than the non-dominant second language. ”

Golan's experiment also found that in another surprising area—pronunciation—there was also a reversal of dominant language. Participants sometimes pronounced a word in the correct language, but the accent was incorrect. Again, this happens more often with English words than Spanish words.

Golan said, "Sometimes bilinguals will say the right words but the accent is wrong, which is a very interesting schism, which tells us that the brain's language control processing has different procedures." There is a difference between a specific program that handles accents and a program that extracts words from a language thesaurus. ”

Even the use of grammar when speaking your native language can be affected by some surprises, especially if you are fully immersed in another language environment.

Kristina Kasparian, a writer, translator and consultant who studied neurolinguistics at McGill University in Canada, said, "Our brains are malleable and adaptable. If you're preoccupied with your second language, your brain does affect the way you perceive and process your native language. ”

When Casparian did her PhD research, part of her and her colleagues' research was for Italians who immigrated to Canada as adults to begin studying English. It is reported that the Italians involved in the experiment have said that they have become more and more unfamiliar with their native Italian language and do not use it much in their daily lives.

Casparian and her research collaborators showed the Italians a range of Italian sentences and asked them to rate how acceptable they were. At the same time, the participants' brain activity was measured using the EEG method. The researchers compared their responses with those of native-speaking countrymen living in Italy.

Casparian said, "There are four different types of sentences, two of which are acceptable in both Italian and English, and two of which are acceptable only in Italian. ”

There is only one such authentic standard Italian sentence in the only acceptable sentence in Italian: I ladri che arresta il poliziotto attendono in macchina. Literally translated into English means, "The thief who arrested the police is waiting in the car." ”

Experiments have found that if very authentic Italian sentences do not conform to English grammar, then Italian immigrants may consider these authentic Italian sentences to be unacceptable. The higher their English proficiency, the longer they live in Canada, and the less time they spend in Italian, the more likely they are to find these very authentic Italian sentences ungrammatical.

These Italian immigrants also had different patterns of brain activity than Italians living in their home countries. Casparian and her colleagues used an EEG to take snapshots of the EEG activity of the experiment participants "as fast as milliseconds" during unfolding language processing.

They found that when reading Italian sentences that were only acceptable in Italian law but the English grammar was wrong, Italians living in Canada had different patterns of brain activity from their compatriots living in Italy.

In fact, Casparian said, the patterns of brain activity of Italian immigrants are more consistent with the ones they expected of as native English speakers, suggesting that their brains process sentences in a different way than their native language-speaking counterparts.

Casparian explains that English grammar places more emphasis on word order than Italian. As a result, she said, Italian immigrants who are accustomed to English grammar are more likely to understand English grammar even if they read Italian. "Even the first language changes, i.e. it's the language you've been using every day for most of your life," she says. ”

Of course, most multilingual people can put the grammar of their native language correctly. But Casparian's study, as well as others she's worked on, show that the many languages we master are not static in our lives, but are constantly changing, actively competing and interfering with each other.

Avoiding inter-language interference can be one of the reasons why adults find it difficult to learn a new language, especially for people who speak only one language from an early age.

Matt Goldrick, a professor of linguistics at Northwestern University in Illinois, said, "Every time you go to speak a new language, another language you're familiar with is like saying, 'Hey, here I'm coming, ready.'" So, the challenge of speaking a new language is that you have to suppress the feeling that the native language will automatically pop up and rush out of your mouth, and you need to choose an action that is too difficult to be true, because you are learning to speak an unfamiliar language for the first time. You have to learn how to navigate something that you don't usually need to suppress, and it will pop up naturally, right? There is no reason to give up. So I think [controlling the urge to speak a familiar language] is a very difficult skill that has to be developed, and that's part of the reason why [learning a new language] can be so difficult. ”

Is there a way to deal with it? There is, immerse yourself completely in the environment of the new language.

"You create a language environment that strongly inhibits the original familiar language, and you get a lot of practice to suppress your first language, giving you a more powerful space for another (new) language," Godrick said. ”

Godric adds, "When you return from this full-body immersion experience, you can hope to be in a position that better handles the competition between multiple languages." The experience will never go away, the competition between languages will never go away, and your ability to control will become stronger and stronger. ”

Navigating the competition between languages is, of course, a job that people who are multilingual will often face. Many researchers believe this gives them some cognitive advantage, although it is worth noting that the jury is still out on this point, and other scholars say their own research does not show reliable evidence of bilingual cognitive advantages.

In any case, the use of language is arguably one of the most complex skills that humans have mastered through learning. Many studies have shown that having to navigate multiple languages is associated with improved cognitive skills, although this association varies by job task and age.

Some studies have shown that bilinguals perform better at performing control tasks, such as when participants are in activities where they must focus on information contrary to what they expected. Speaking multiple languages can delay the onset of dementia symptoms. Of course, mastering multiple languages not only benefits the cognitive abilities of the brain, but also brings many other obvious benefits, especially the ability to talk to people in many other languages and reap social benefits.

But although I can speak many languages, which has benefited me a little, it has not saved me from blushing with disrespect.

It's a bit humiliating that I haven't visited that bakery since my inadvertent slip of the tongue. So, maybe I should visit one by one at the many bakeries near my house, and of course, take the opportunity to practice how to control my use of the language so as not to offend others again.