How we get our heads round languages

Cultural diversity plays a key role in Switzerland's high proportion of multilingual people Keystone

Two languages take up no more space in the brain than one, and even with a late start you can still become bilingual, a neurologist tells

This content was published on February 20, 2010

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day on Sunday, spoke to Jean-Marie Annoni, of the neuropsychology unit at the Geneva University Hospital, who has been working on the subject of language acquisition for several years.

Switzerland has four national languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – so multilingual ability is not unusual. Many Swiss are fluent in at least two – and English is being increasingly used as a lingua franca. Research has shown that bilingual people do not necessarily use more space in their brains to store two languages.

Jean-Marie Annoni: That’s right. The two languages are superimposed in the brain, and there are all sorts of “switches” which enable you to move from one language to the other. They are mental control mechanisms, similar to those we use in other brain activities.

But there is a slight difference. In “natural” or early bilinguals [people who have learnt two languages before the age of five], the two languages are strongly interlocked. But if you learn the second language later, it uses the same structures but sometimes it needs to call on a bit more space when you speak it. Is it really possible to be perfectly bilingual, or do people always tend to be better at one language than the other?

J.-M.A.: Some people are born with two languages: they speak one with one parent and the second with the other. They can be perfectly bilingual. But as they grow up, they will probably start to prefer one language – the one they use at school or the one they work in.

In any case, they will develop slightly different areas of proficiency in each language. For example, they might be better in the professional environment at the language they speak at work, and perhaps better for more intimate things in the language they speak at home. You mentioned a difference between early and later acquisition. Surely the results are always better with the former?

J.-M.A.: Neurologically, the fact that you learn a second language later means you are likely to use slightly different structures, although the basis is the same. But that doesn’t mean the result is necessarily any less good.

I know quite a lot of people who have learnt a second language later and who are as competent in the second as in the first. Some even become better, because they find themselves in an environment where they have to use it more often. So they will extend it more effectively.

However, people who are late second-language learners have an extra slight difficulty, which is that they may not acquire automatic phonological reflexes. For example, the correct pronunciation of the French “r” and the Italian “rr” is something that children acquire automatically, but after the age of about seven, children have to learn it specially. But some are quite capable of doing this. Is there such a thing as an innate ability to learn languages? Are there language prodigies, in the same way that there are maths prodigies?

J.-M.A.: Just as there are people who are quicker, or more efficient, than others at learning to read or write, so there are some who have a greater ability to learn phonology, or who are better at hearing sounds than other people. That explains in part why some are faster at learning a foreign language.

But as to why there are so many bilingual people in some countries, like Switzerland, obviously that’s a cultural matter. We’ve been talking about people who speak two languages, but some can cope with far more than that. Up to how many is it possible to go?

J.-M.A.: What we’ve noticed is that after four languages, people appear to find it easier to learn at least the basics of another. It’s a matter of having got used to learning, in a way, and the brain probably acquires certain specific abilities.

We have seen people managing to separate four or five languages quite easily. But beyond four we haven’t studied the space the languages occupy in the brain. It’s difficult to find enough people who can be test subjects.

Marc-André Miserez, (translated from French by Julia Slater)

Language and identity

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, in 1999 at the request of Bangladesh.

It has been held annually since 2000.

It has its origins in the Language Movement Day, commemorated in what was then East Pakistan since 1952.

In 1952 language riots in Dhaka in defence of the Bengali language were brutally suppressed. Bengalis were protesting against the attempt by the government to impose the Urdu language spoken in West Pakistan.

The protests sparked the movement which led to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.

The objective of Mother Language Day has developed to celebrate linguistic diversity and recognise the importance of multilingual education.

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