Language learning and brain connectivity

By Ana Palma [original research by Chai, Berken, Barbeau, Soles, Callahan, Chen, & Klein, 2016]

Learning a second language is a task that comes more easily to some than others. Some may struggle to read and write while others may have a hard time speaking the new language. Whether it was learned in a classroom, online, or in an immersive environment, there is definitely variability among second language learners that makes the learning process different for each person. What accounts for these individual differences in learning a new language?

This is the question that was asked in a study done at McGill University, where the goal was to investigate the relationship between specific brain parts and the ability to learn a second language. Participants completed 12 weeks of intensive French immersion training and researchers found large individual differences in how much the native English-speaking participants improved their French skills.

The training was done in a classroom setting with instruction in French, conversation partners, and frequent contact with native speakers in Montreal, Quebec. If you’re trying to learn a second language quickly, this is definitely the kind of immersive environment you want. Participants were tested both before and after the training course for their language proficiency in English and French. Instead of using a traditional grading system, participants were assessed using spontaneous speech samples (having them talk about a day at the park or any random topic) and reading samples in both English and French before and after the course.

As predicted, some participants were more successful than others in learning a second language. Experimenters found that differences in brain connectivity (or brain anatomy) played a big factor. Using resting-state fMRI (a technique that measures brain activity while you are awake, but not doing a task), experimenters scanned the brains of the native English speakers before and after the French immersion course. By analyzing the brain in a resting state, they discovered that differences in improvement of reading and speaking were related to pre-existing differences in brain connectivity.

Image: Center for Brain Health UT Dallas

Reading and speaking depended on different regions of the brain. Participants who showed greater improvement in their French speaking skills showed stronger connectivity in the medial inferior frontal gyrus. Participants who showed stronger reading skills had stronger connectivity between the visual word form area and a cluster in the left mid-superior temporal gyrus. Reading and speaking depended on different functional connections, but both skills followed the same principal: greater connectivity between specific areas of the brain before training was associated with better proficiency when learning a second language.

These results suggest that our ability to learn a second language can be predicted by the connectivity in language related regions of the brain. This is very significant for scientists and educators as they could potentially use these findings to determine who will be more successful in learning a second language. Or perhaps, neuroscientists could find a way to facilitate these connections, making the learning process smoother.

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Author: Rose Hendricks

I'm a PhD Candidate in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego. I work to better understand how metaphor shapes the way we perceive and think about the world.

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