[EDLING:349] Learning 2nd Language Changes Brain Anatomy -Study

Francis M Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Fri Oct 15 14:03:53 UTC 2004


Learning 2nd Language Changes Brain Anatomy -Study
Wed 13 October, 2004 19:18

By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - Being bilingual produces changes in the anatomy of the
brain, scientists said on Wednesday in finding that could explain why
children are so much better than adults at mastering a second language.

They found that people who speak two languages have more gray matter in
the language region of the brain. The earlier they learned the language,
the larger the gray area.

"The gray matter in this region increases in bilinguals relative to
monolinguals -- this is particularly true in early bilinguals who learned
a second language early in life," said Andrea Mechelli, a neuroscientist
at University College London.

"The degree is correlated with the proficiency achieved."

Learning another language after 35 years old also alters the brain but the
change is not as pronounced as in early learners.

"It reinforces the idea that it is better to learn early rather than late
because the brain is more capable of adjusting or accommodating new
languages by changing structurally," Mechelli said.

"This ability of the brain decreases with time."

Mechelli and his team used structural brain imaging to compare the size of
the gray matter in the brains of 25 monolinguals, 25 early bilinguals who
learned a second language before the age of five and 33 late bilinguals.

All the volunteers in the study, which is described in the science journal
Nature, were native English speakers of comparable age and education.

In the bilinguals, the gray matter in the left inferior parietal cortex
was larger than in the monolinguals or the bilinguals who picked up the
second language between the ages of 10-15.

"By looking at the size of the change (in the brain) I can tell whether
someone is very proficient or not because the bigger the change the better
the proficiency," said Mechelli.

Grey matter in the brain is made up of neurons, or brain cells. The
scientists do not know whether the change in bilinguals means there is an
increase in the size of the cells, the number of cells or the connections
between them.

"The next step would be to understand the change better at a small-scale
level," according to Mechelli.

He and his colleagues are planning further studies with people who have
difficulty learning languages to see whether their brain behaves

They also plan to study speakers of several languages to determine whether
the increase in gray matter is proportional to the number of languages
they have mastered.

More information about the Edling mailing list