Tony Gurr

Posts Tagged ‘neurobiology of bilingualism’

Linguists, Neuroscientists and Geneticians – three heads are better than one!

In Bilingualism on 21/02/2011 at 7:56 am

In my last post – The New Orthodoxy and the Rehabilitation of Bilingualism – I said 2004 was a landmark year for language learning professionals and supporters of bilingualism – as well as for experts in Alzheimer’s.

I also mentioned the impact of such work into the neurobiology of bilingualism and other studies into genetic research – and how this helped get bilingual education back on the “what’s-hot-list”!


Perhaps the first ground-breaking study – into brain plasticity and density – that helped Krashen and his pals in California – was conducted by Mechelli and her colleagues at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience (London/Oxford) and the Fondazione Santa Lucia (Rome).

This work demonstrated that knowing a foreign language can actually change the brain’s anatomy by “adding” gray matter. Mechelli et al, using newer brain scanning technologies, produced some of the earliest findings that clearly showed that brain density is changed by being bilingual or highly proficient in a second language – yeah, it’s  true most non-native ELT teachers are smarter!

Although language is thought to be mediated by functional changes in the brain, Mechelli suggested that structure of the human brain is, in fact, also altered by the experience of acquiring a second language. Their work was of great interest to supporters of bilingual education because the study showed that the effect was strongest in people who had learned a second language before the age of 5.

The findings also demonstrated that adult learners could also benefit from similar structural reorganization of the left inferior parietal cortex – what the hell (ineks)? They studied native Italian speakers who had learned English as a second language between ages 2 and 34. Their findings suggested that while it appeared easier to develop fluency and linguistic competence as a child, similar processes occurred in adults.

The findings of Dr Ellen Bialystok and colleagues at York University built on earlier studies that had demonstrated keeping the brain active (through reading, doing crosswords, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing) can protect against senile dementia.

However, their research into bilingual speakers showed that language skills also have a “protective effect” on cognitive abilities – not only were bilingual speakers able to respond to cognitive tests faster than those who were fluent in just English, they were also less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The suggestion that bilingualism helps to offset age-related losses was a huge shot in the arm for supporters of bilingual education but also encouraged more researchers to investigate the possibility that earlier development of second language may improve cognitive functioning in higher levels of schooling and later life.

The work of Bialystok et al (2004) also demonstrated (through tests that measured how quickly they could perform while distracted) that bilingual speakers from Canada, India and Hong Kong are better able to deal with distractions than are monolingual speakers. Such research suggested that the ability of bilingual speakers (of Cantonese and English, Tamil and English or French and English) to hold two languages in the mind at the same time, without allowing words and grammar from one to slip into the other, accounted for their greater control over task performance and stay focussed.


These studies have led to a range of other research projects into the neurobiology of bilingualism. Although scientists do not yet know the answers to all our questions about the relationships between bilingualism and cognitive development, they are gaining better understandings of how the brain organises speech and communication tasks on a day-to-day basis – yeah, go science-buffs!

Brain-based research is also being supported by advances in our understanding of the genetic web that also underlies human language. Scientists have long puzzled over the origins of the amazing human ability to organise vocal sounds into words and words into meaningful sentences.

Genetic research in the field of speech and language disorders is also providing us with more insights into the genetic basis of the evolution of speech and the biological basis of language problems, in addition to offering potential treatments for speech and communication disorders – many believe it is a matter of time before we discover the “language pill”boo, science-buffs (what about our jobs)?

This work first began with a team of British geneticists looking into the severe language and speech difficulties faced by a unique three-generation family with a rare monogenic condition. Members of family were found to carry a mutation in a gene on chromosome 7 known as FOXP2 (Lai, et al, 2001 and Fisher, et al, 2003) and this discovery marked the first time a single gene had been directly linked to language and speech.

Further research quickly uncovered that Fisher and his teams had not discovered the “gene for language” – FOXP2 is not the gene that makes language happen (yeah, our jobs are safe)!

However, it was shown that genes like FOXP2 are critical in creating a “language-ready brain” – and unequivocally established the importance of genetic factors in the acquisition of speech and language.

More recent studies have shown that mice with a “partly humanised form” of FOXP2 show greater synaptic plasticity than normal mice – and have demonstrated the interconnections with genetic and brain-based studies into language (Kunder, et al, 2009).

A great deal more about language and genes is yet to be discovered but the FOXP2 studies have proved a valuable starting point for pursuing the genetics of that very human talent – language!

Hey, Stuart Little – it belongs to us!

you stay away from our language!


Sevgili İnekler – here you go!

  • Bialystok, E and Martin, M. M. (2004). “Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: evidence from the dimensional change card sort task”. Developmental Science, vol 7(no.03). pp. 325-339 (June 2004).
  • Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control:  Evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging, Vol. 19 (no.2). pp. 290-303.
  • Fisher, S.E., Lai, C.S., and Monaco, A.P. (2003). Deciphering the genetic basis of speech and language disorders. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 26. Pp.57-80.
  • Grigorenko, E. L. (2009). Speaking genes or genes for speaking? Deciphering the genetics of speech and language. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2009 Jan; 50(1-2):116-25.
  • Kunder, S. (et al). (2009). A Humanized Version of Foxp2 Affects Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Mice. Cell. Vol 03 (41).
  • Lai, C.S., Fisher, S.E., Hurst, J.A., Vargha-Khadem., F and Monaco, A.P. (2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature. 2001 Oct 4;413(6855):519-23.
  • Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., and Price, C. J. (2004). Neurolinguistics:  Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431 (757), 14 October 2004. Published online 13 October 2004
  • Newbury, D. F. and Monaco, A. P. (2010). Genetic advances in the study of speech and language disorders. Neuron. 2010 Oct 21;68(2):309-20.
  • Vernes, S. C., Newbury, D. F., Abrahams, B. S., Winchester, L., Nicod, J., Groszer, M., Alarcón, M., Oliver, P. L., Davies, K. E., Geschwind, D. H., Monaco, A.P. and Fisher, S. E. (2008). A functional genetic link between distinct developmental language disorders.  New England Journal of Medicine. 2008 Nov 27; 359(22):2337-45.