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How does bilingualism affect the brain?

How does bilingualism affect the brain?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Shane Curran. Originally submitted for Arts (Psychology) at National University of Ireland Galway, with lecturer Mark Elliot in the category of Psychology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Shane Curran. Originally submitted for Arts (Psychology) at National University of Ireland Galway, with lecturer Mark Elliot in the category of Psychology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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This paper will examine the proposition that being or becoming bilingual can result inchanges in the structure and functioning of the brain. It will firstly introduce bilingualism anddiscuss the proposals that exist in the literature as to the location of general language-relatedbrain areas in order to provide a context with which to views findings relating tobilingualism. Secondly, it will outline the concept of neural changes as a result of experience, establishing that the brain can experience structural changes in the event of increased and differing demands. This will also provide support for the rational behind thebelief that the acquisition of a second language may result in an altered structural architecturewithin the brain to accommodate this skill. It will thirdly describe the effects seen insimultaneous and successive bilinguals, and utilise relevant literature to draw comparisonswith the neural architecture of a single language brain. Finally, the effects that these brainchanges have on linguistic functioning and others areas of cognition will be examined, toprovide a synopsis of the various cognitive and language related consequences of bilingualism.Bilingualism refers to the regular use of two or more languages by a person or withina group of people (American Psychological Association, 2009). The defining feature of bilingualism is the ability of the individual to meet the communication demands of the self or
the individual‟s culture in two or more langua
ges (Mohanty & Perregaux, 1997), and thisability of multilingualism is understood to belong to more than half of the world population(Fabbro, 2001).
Bilingualism can also be categorised as „simultaneous‟, when multiplelanguages are acquired during childhood naturally, and „successive‟, when a second language
(L2) is learned after the first (Romaine, 1989). Although it is widely assumed that a bilingual
individual is essentially “two monolinguals in one person” (Grosjean, 1989)
in terms of language proficiency, a perfect knowledge of L2 is not an explicit necessity to be considered
as a bilingual. This is due to the nature of language acquisition and use for bilinguals, whichis seen to occur for different purposes, in different social contexts, and with a variety of social groups (Fabbro, 2001). Extensive research has therefore been conducted into thisspecific ability, to acquire multiple methods of verbal communication, as it is considereduniquely human and a skill that could be mediated by functional and structural changes in thebrain (Mechelli et al., 2004). It could be argued that the empirical investigations of bilingualism, and particularly of the neurological consequences, have run in parallel withmonolingual language research, which has provided a neuroanatomical configuration withwhich to compare the brain structure of bilinguals.Although there remains some uncertainty about the exact location of all languagefunctions, there is a general consensus in the field that, regardless of dexterity (Rasmussen &Milner, 1977), language is mediated by a series of interconnected regions in the lefthemisphere (Stirling & Elliot, 2008). Broca and Wernicke were the first researchers toinvestigate and determine the importance of the left hemisphere in human language byconducting separate studies of aphasia, or the acquired impairment of language ability(Broca, 1861; Wernicke, 1875), which created legacies that are indelibly established inmodern brain research.
Broca‟s area
now refers to the region of the brain that is integral tothe production of speech, and is located in the inferior frontal association cortex, rostral to the
 base of the left primary motor cortex, whereas Wernicke‟s area, located in the middle and
posterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus, has been shown to play a pivotal role in theanalysis of speech sounds, comprehension of words, and production of meaningful speech(Carlson, 2011). Although these areas are believed to be fundamental to language, languagerelated activation has also been observed in a variety of other brain regions, such as themiddle and inferior temporal gyri, lingual and fusiform gyri, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,
and the insula (Abutalebi, Cappa, & Perani, 2001; Price, 1998), although these areas areimplicated in more specialized aspects of language processing (Indefrey & Levelt, 2000).Bilingual aphasia, then, refers to an acquired language impairment that can impact particularor multiple languages of a bilingual individual (Fabbro, 2001), and research into the originsof this specific type of aphasia were the first indications that the neural structure of bilingualscould be unique. As this condition can result in the loss of a specific language, while theremaining language is left intact, a number of theories were proposed that suggesteddifferential neural bases for each individual language (Albert & Obler, 1978). Although sucha proposition would be presently disregarded in favour of more dynamic views of neurallanguage representations (Green & Abutalebi, 2008), it did introduce the concept thatbilingualism could have an affect on an individual
encephalic architecture.Changes to the structure of the brain in response to specific demands, however, is nota novel concept and has been an extensively studied phenomenon. An abundance of evidence, derived from the findings of such studies, is supportive of the proposition that skillacquisition can cause structural and functional differences in the brain, as it is forced to adaptto the demands of long-term training (Perani, 2005). The hippocampi, for example, have beenshown to experience changes in volume as a function of the demands placed on spatialmemory (Biegler, McGregor, Krebs, & Healy, 2001). Such an effect has famously beenobserved in taxi drivers, whose extensive, learned knowledge of complex environments canlead to plastic changes in the structure of the hippocampi to accommodate such large spatialrepresentations and navigational abilities (Maguire et al., 2000). Specifically, when taxidrivers were compared with a similar age controls, it was found that the cognitive demands of their occupation and extensive experience with spatial navigation had resulted in greater graymatter (GM) volume in the posterior hippocampi and a conversely reduced anterior

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