Learning about the brain is too difficult

What happens in the brain when learning a language

Where researchers locate language in the brain

Great apes are highly intelligent animals. They used tools to get to their food, have empathy and communicate with precisely defined sounds. They are even able to assign individual symbols or sounds to different things.

But combining words according to certain rules, mastering a complex sentence structure and grammar - only we humans have this ability. Language is a cognitive high performance of our brain.

In order to learn a foreign language, the brain uses structures that it has already created for the mother tongue. Neuroscientists were able to identify two language regions with which we are already born: the Broca area in the left frontal lobe, with which we are able to build up a sentence according to certain rules (syntax). And the Wernicke area in the left temporal lobe, which processes the meaning of words and sentences (semantics).

Even infants use the Wernicke region to learn and store words. From the age of six months, babies are able to assign a term to objects and even recognize mistakes - even before they even begin to speak. At this age, the brain is very plastic and malleable and absorbs a lot of new words, so to speak.

From the age of one, children categorize the words they have learned: An apple is an apple - regardless of whether it is red or green. With the help of the Wernicke region, three-year-olds can easily understand simple sentences. In order to understand grammatically more difficult sentences, the children also need the Broca area, which develops with increasing age.

Six-year-old children can easily understand sentences such as "The fox catches the hare" through the Broca region, for example. Sentences like "The fox catches the hare" are more difficult. As a rule, children cannot understand these phrases until they are ten years old.

Because in order to understand such grammatically complex sentences, the two language regions first have to connect with each other. In adults, thick bundles of nerve fibers network the Wernicke and Broca areas and enable us to understand complex language and express ourselves.

How foreign languages ​​change the brain

When a student learns a foreign language, the processes in the brain are similar to those of a child learning their mother tongue. Here, too, the Wernicke area is initially active. First we try to understand the meaning of words using facial expressions and gestures and save new vocabulary - for example "apple" for apple.

If we already master a basic vocabulary, we pay more attention to peculiarities and grammatical structures in sentences. The more we learn the grammar, the more the second region, the Broca area, becomes involved.

In children who grow up bilingual, these processes run in parallel for two languages. The little ones manage to separate both languages ​​and not to mix them. Neuroscientists cannot yet explain exactly how children achieve this peak performance. One thing is certain, however: if the parents speak to the child in their mother tongue (example: the father only speaks German and the mother only French), it will be easier for him to tell the languages ​​apart.

Neuroscientists also need to research how exactly the learning process differs between the foreign language and the mother tongue. Is one of the language regions increasingly active? Are other brain regions involved? With the help of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the electroencephalogram (EEG), the researchers can visualize the structures and watch the brain learn.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences used these methods to study Russians, Dutch, Japanese and French learning German, for example. They played grammatically incorrect sentences for them and compared their brain responses with German native speakers.

In the case of native speakers, sentences like "The bread are being eaten" immediately switch on the Broca area like an alarm system. The German learners also recognize the mistake, but take longer to notice it. Your brain has not yet installed the automatic alarm system, so to speak.

In the case of advanced learners, however, the researchers were able to recognize that the Broca area was activated by wrong sentences. In the case of those test persons who speak fluent and almost perfect German, the brain response ultimately proceeds in exactly the same way as with a native speaker. With time and the right practice, our brain can also master language learning in adulthood.

Language learning trains the brain

For decades, teachers and parents thought that growing up bilingually stopped children from studying. Until the 1960s, experts therefore suspected that bilingual people are less intelligent. Today, however, one thing is certain: multilingualism encourages children.

Crucial for this turning point in linguistics was an intelligence study from Canada, where many people speak English and French. The study was able to show that those children who spoke both languages ​​performed better in the intelligence test than the monolingual children.

Since then, scientists have studied multilingual people more closely and discovered other benefits of foreign language learning. Your brains are always busy choosing the right language and suppressing the unnecessary words and grammar rules.

This process is a constant training for the thinking organ. This makes it easier for multilingual people to switch back and forth between tasks. You can concentrate better and simply block out distractions.

The brain training is particularly beneficial for older people. Researchers were able to detect more intact white matter in bilingual seniors than in monolingual people of the same age. The scientists were able to show that the constant change of language ensures that the degradation processes take longer in old age - and that dementia is delayed for four to five years.

The protective effect also works when people are late in learning foreign languages. The same applies to older people: Learning a language is healthy.