Among the things that are often listed as making us “human” are tool use, advanced problem solving-capabilities, even religion. However, one thing above all enables the development of humankind – language. Now, scientists are doing their level best to unlock the mystery of how the brain turns our thoughts into words – even across different systems of language.
“Our brains are capable of engaging in multiple languages,” said Sarah Phillips from New York University. “Languages may differ in what sounds they use and how they organize words to form sentences. However, all languages involve the process of combining words to express complex thoughts.”
“Bilinguals show a fascinating version of this process – their brains readily combine words from different languages together, much like when combining words from the same language,” said Liina Pylkkänen.
Phillips and Pylkkänen are the authors of a new study examining the way the brain of bilingual people operates, especially when two bilinguals converse.
To accomplish this, the researchers studied a group of people who spoke both English and Korean. Then they performed tests on words that accurately described pictures – the words were sometimes English, and sometimes Korean. Then, the experts used magnetoencephalography to measure the portions of the brain that were active during the exercise.
The results? The brain’s left anterior lobe was able to formulate meaning out of the word-picture associations, even when switching between languages.
“Our results reveal one neural substrate that may underlie the intuitive ease of language switching: a combinatory mechanism in left anterior temporal cortex that can take mixed-language vocabulary as its input with no sensitivity to language switching,” wrote the study authors.
Because there’s not an extra “step” involved in the multi-lingual exchanges, this suggests that bilingual people have a distinct neurological ability to combine and interpret different languages.
“Earlier studies have examined how our brains can interpret an infinite number of expressions within a single language,” said Phillips. “This research shows that bilingual brains can, with striking ease, interpret complex expressions containing words from different languages.”
The study is published in the journal eNeuro.