Author Topic: Multilingual People Have an Advantage Over Those Fluent in Only Two Languages  (Read 1238 times)

Offline Fleur-de-Lys

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Multilingual People Have an Advantage Over Those Fluent in Only Two Languages

In Neuroscience News

Summary: Multilingual people have similar brain activation to that of bilingual people, but the activation is much more sensitive and a lot faster.

Source: University of Tokyo

Multilingual people have trained their brains to learn languages, making it easier to acquire more new languages after mastering a second or third. In addition to demystifying the seemingly herculean genius of multilinguals, researchers say these results provide some of the first neuroscientific evidence that language skills are additive, a theory known as the cumulative-enhancement model of language acquisition.

“The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo, an expert in the neuroscience of language and last author of the research study recently published in Scientific Reports.

This joint research project includes collaboration with Professor Suzanne Flynn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a specialist in linguistics and multilanguage acquisition, who first proposed the cumulative enhancement model.

Neuroscientists measured brain activity while 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual adult volunteers tried to identify words and sentences in Kazakh, a language brand new to them.

All participants were native speakers of Japanese whose second language was English. Most of the multilingual participants had learned Spanish as a third language, but others had learned Chinese, Korean, Russian or German. Some knew up to five languages.

Fluency in multiple languages requires command of different sounds, vocabularies, sentence structures and grammar rules. Sentences in English and Spanish are usually structured with the noun or verb at the start of a phrase, but Japanese and Kazakh consistently place nouns or verbs at the end of a phrase. English, Spanish and Kazakh grammars require subject-verb agreement (she walks, they walk), but Japanese grammar does not.

Instead of grammar drills or conversation skills in a classroom, researchers simulated a more natural language learning environment where volunteers had to figure out the fundamentals of a new language purely by listening.

Volunteers listened to recordings of individual Kazakh words or short sentences including those words while watching a screen with plus or minus symbols to signal if the sentence was grammatically correct or not.

Volunteers were given a series of four increasingly difficult listening tests while researchers measured their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In the simplest test, volunteers had to determine if they were hearing a word from the earlier learning session or if it was a grammatically different version of the same word; for example: run/ran or take/takes.

In the next test levels, volunteers listened to example sentences and were asked if the sentences were grammatically correct and to decipher sentence structures by identifying noun-verb pairs. For example, “We understood that John thought,” is translated in Kazakh as “Biz John oyladï dep tusindik.” The sentence would be grammatically incorrect if volunteers heard tusindi instead of tusindik. The correct noun-verb pairs are we understood (Biz tusindik) and John thought (John oyladï).

Volunteers could retake the learning session and repeat the test an unlimited number of times until they passed and progressed to the next level of difficulty.

Multilingual participants who were more fluent in their second and third languages were able to pass the Kazakh tests with fewer repeated learning sessions than their less-fluent multilingual peers. More-fluent multilinguals also became faster at choosing an answer as they progressed from the third to fourth test level, a sign of increased confidence and that knowledge acquired during easier tests was successfully transferred to higher levels.

“For multilinguals, in Kazakh, the pattern of brain activation is similar to that for bilinguals, but the activation is much more sensitive, and much faster,” said Sakai.

The pattern of brain activation in bilingual and multilingual volunteers fits current understanding of how the brain understands language, specifically that portions of the left frontal lobe become more active when understanding both the content and meaning of a sentence. When learning a second language, it is normal for the corresponding areas on the right side of the brain to become active and assist in efforts to understand.

Multilingual volunteers had no detectable right-side activation during the initial, simple Kazakh grammar test level, but brain scans showed strong activity in those assisting areas of bilingual volunteers’ brains.

Researchers also detected differences in the basal ganglia, often considered a more fundamental area of the brain. Bilingual volunteers’ basal ganglia had low levels of activation that spiked as they progressed through the test and then returned to a low level at the start of the next test. Multilingual volunteers began the first test level with similarly low basal ganglia activity that spiked and then remained high throughout the subsequent test levels.

The UTokyo-MIT research team says this activation pattern in the basal ganglia shows that multilingual people can make generalizations and build on prior knowledge, rather than approach each new grammar rule as a separate idea to understand from scratch.

Prior studies by Sakai and others have found a three-part timeline of changes in brain activation while learning a new language: an initial increase, a high plateau and a decline to the same low level of activation required to understand the native language.

These new results confirm that pattern in multilinguals and support the possibility that prior experience progressing through those stages of language learning makes it easier to do again, supporting the cumulative-enhancement model of language acquisition.

“This is a neuroscientific explanation of why learning another new language is easier than acquiring a second. Bilinguals only have two points of reference. Multilinguals can use their knowledge of three or more languages in their brains to learn another new one,” said Sakai.

Sakai and his colleagues are continuing to expand their study of the multilingual brain with their collaborators at MIT.

About this language research news

Source:
University of Tokyo
Contact: Kuniyoshi L. Sakai – University of Tokyo

Original Research: Open access.
“Enhanced activations in syntax-related regions for multilinguals while acquiring a new language” by Keita Umejima, Suzanne Flynn & Kuniyoshi L. Sakai. Scientific Reports

Abstract

Enhanced activations in syntax-related regions for multilinguals while acquiring a new language


The neuroscientific foundation of multilingualism, a unique cognitive capacity, necessitates further elucidation. We conducted an fMRI experiment to evaluate the acquisition of syntactic features in a new language (Kazakh) for multilinguals and bilinguals.
 
Results showed that the multilinguals who were more proficient in their second/third languages needed fewer task trials to acquire Kazakh phonology. Regarding group differences, the reduction in response times during the initial exposure to Kazakh were significantly larger for the multilinguals than the bilinguals.

For the multilinguals, activations in the bilateral frontal/temporal regions were maintained at a higher level than the initial level during subsequent new grammar conditions. For the bilinguals, activations in the basal ganglia/thalamus and cerebellum decreased to the initial level each time. Direct group comparisons showed significantly enhanced activations for the multilinguals in the left ventral inferior frontal gyrus.

These results indicate that both syntax-related and domain-general brain networks were more enhanced for the multilinguals. We also unexpectedly observed significant activations in the visual areas for the multilinguals, implying the use of visual representation even when listening to speech sounds alone.

Because the multilinguals were able to successfully utilize acquired knowledge in an accumulated manner, the results support the cumulative-enhancement model of language acquisition.
« Last Edit: April 03, 2021, 02:45:44 PM by Fleur-de-Lys »
 
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Offline Prayerful

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Multilingual People Have an Advantage Over Those Fluent in Only Two Languages

 ;D

I've only one, English with some Irish, and smidgeons of Latin and French.
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Offline Lynne

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Interesting article, but more importantly, you've posted again!

Missed you!
In conclusion, I can leave you with no better advice than that given after every sermon by Msgr Vincent Giammarino, who was pastor of St Michael’s Church in Atlantic City in the 1950s:

    “My dear good people: Do what you have to do, When you’re supposed to do it, The best way you can do it,   For the Love of God. Amen.”
 
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Offline Fleur-de-Lys

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Interesting article, but more importantly, you've posted again!

Missed you!

You're very kind, Lynne!  :)

I've been really busy these past few months. Unfortunately that isn't likely to change any time soon. I'm just taking a bit of a break for Easter.

I've missed hearing from everyone. I hope that you are all well.
 
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Offline MaximGun

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How do the Traditional Catholic Forums in French and Spanish compare to this and Catholic Info?

Do they have more postings?

I've always wondered.
 

Offline Fleur-de-Lys

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How do the Traditional Catholic Forums in French and Spanish compare to this and Catholic Info?

Do they have more postings?

I've always wondered.

Why don't you start a separate thread for that, Maxim? Your question may be overlooked here.
 
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Offline Lynne

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Back on topic  ;)

I only speak/read English although I "learned" French and German in school but I could barely hold a conversation in either.

BUT, I've found that I'm able to learn multiple programming languages somewhat easily.
In conclusion, I can leave you with no better advice than that given after every sermon by Msgr Vincent Giammarino, who was pastor of St Michael’s Church in Atlantic City in the 1950s:

    “My dear good people: Do what you have to do, When you’re supposed to do it, The best way you can do it,   For the Love of God. Amen.”
 
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Offline Fleur-de-Lys

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Back on topic  ;)

I only speak/read English although I "learned" French and German in school but I could barely hold a conversation in either.

BUT, I've found that I'm able to learn multiple programming languages somewhat easily.

When my mother was in college she managed to get out of the foreign language requirement by taking a programming language instead.  :D  I don't know enough about programming languages to say to what extent they resemble human language though.
 
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Offline Heinrich

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I would be interested to see how people who are monolingual, but know how to play numerous musical instruments, would do on the CEMLA test.
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Offline MaximGun

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I just wondered what advantage being multi-lingual really is if the world transacts information exchange primarily in English.  Which, it does.

I think real time translation technology might soon render multi lingual skills as worthless as being able to dial a rotary phone or change a typewriter ribbon.
 

Offline Jayne

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I just wondered what advantage being multi-lingual really is if the world transacts information exchange primarily in English.  Which, it does.

I think real time translation technology might soon render multi lingual skills as worthless as being able to dial a rotary phone or change a typewriter ribbon.

There are more reasons for studying a language than exchanging information.  For example,  as a young woman, I studied Lithuanian, a language with relatively few speakers.  There were a couple of reasons I wanted to.  It is a language with archaic structures that are very helpful for understanding the development of the Indo-European language family (an interest of mine). 

Also, it was the first language of the handsome young man I was dating at the time (now a handsome old man to whom I have been married over 40 years).  Learning about his language and culture was important for my relationship with him and his parents, even though they all could communicate in English perfectly well.

Now that I'm old, when I study languages, an advantage that I think of is its protective effect against dementia. 

Even if we already had real time translation technology, I would still want to study languages.  There is an entire level of nuances and connotations that is lost in translation.  Deep understanding needs more than translation.
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Offline Fleur-de-Lys

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I just wondered what advantage being multi-lingual really is if the world transacts information exchange primarily in English.  Which, it does.

The article isn't about the advantages of being multilingual in the marketplace. It is about the advantages that multilingual people have in acquiring additional languages.

Though English is currently the global language, only about one billion people speak it, and not all of those speak it very well. Depending on who you want to talk to (or what you want to read without having to trust the judgments of a translator), there is still plenty of reason to learn another language.

Of course if you are a native speaker of English with little interest in other cultures, you might not find the investment in mastering another language to be worthwhile in the current climate. Suit yourself. I learn languages simply because I enjoy it.

Quote
I think real time translation technology might soon render multi lingual skills as worthless as being able to dial a rotary phone or change a typewriter ribbon.

And who is going to design and maintain that technology? Never mind the awkwardness of relying on such a thing to have a face-to-face conversation with a person you have a real-life (not virtual) relationship with.



 
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Offline MaximGun

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I would imagine that the acquisition of any skill makes it easier to acquire other similar skills. Skateboarders can very easily become snowboarders. Children taught to throw correctly at a young age or develop fine motor skills can become much better at sports than their peers who were not.

Confidence you can learn new skills is a big motivator for taking on any new learning in life.

It is then just a question of what skills are the most beneficial to have.  If I could go back in time, I would like to be good at dancing and playing musical instruments.  To sit on a hotel lobby and just play from memory would be something I would enjoy.  But I also admire people who fashion a cabin from logs.  People have amazing skills.

 
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