Being bilingual comes naturally to the human brain, study finds

NEW YORK — Learning a new language can be a difficult task, but a new study suggests the human mind is actually built to be bilingualism. New York University scientists conclude the brain uses a “shared mechanism” for combining words from one language and combining words from two different languages.

In simpler terms, this indicates that switching between languages is actually quite natural for those who are bilingual. Why? The brain actually has a mechanism in place that prevents the mind from recognizing the language shift. This facilitates a “seamless transition” when it comes to understanding more than one language.

For the brain, two fluent languages is really just one universal language, which makes switching back and forth a breeze.

“Our brains are capable of engaging in multiple languages,” explains lead study author Sarah Phillips, an NYU doctoral candidate, in a university release. “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,” adds senior study author Liina Pylkkänen, a professor in NYU’s Department of Linguistics and Department of Psychology.

How does the brain switch between languages?

About 60 million Americans are bilingual and it’s very common for those who speak more than one language to switch back and forth over the course of a conversation. However, the neurological processes behind bilingualism are still somewhat of a mystery. In search of some answers, this study’s authors investigated two distinct possibilities.

The first is that the brain interprets mixed-language expressions using the very same mechanisms as single-language expressions. The second is that mixed-language understanding is possible through some type of new, unique brain mechanism.

To investigate these topics, researchers tracked and analyzed the neural activity among a group of Korean/English bilinguals. The team showed each participant a series of word mixtures and images and asked them to answer if the word pairings matched with the pictures.

The words either made up a short, two-word sentence, or were a pair of verbs that didn’t form any real phrase. For example, “icicles melt” vs. “jump melt.” In some cases, the two words were of the same language, but other pairings mixed languages very much like a bilingual conversation.

Meanwhile, study authors tracked each subject’s brain activity via magnetoencephalography (MEG). Those readings revealed that while interpreting mixed-language expressions, bilinguals use the very same neural mechanism as while speaking just one language.

On a more detailed level, participants’ left anterior temporal lobes, a portion of the brain responsible for language skills and combining the meanings of multiple words, were totally “insensitive” to the languages being processed. English or Korean, it made no difference.

“Earlier studies have examined how our brains can interpret an infinite number of expressions within a single language,” Phillips concludes. “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.