Amassing proof shows how language context shapes bilingual language use and cognitive outcomes. Be that as it may, few examinations have considered the impact of language context for monolinguals.
Even though monolinguals’ language preparation is thought to be moderately steady and homogeneous, a new study by the University of Washington finds that monolinguals living in linguistically diverse contexts regularly overhear languages they do not understand and may absorb information about those languages in ways that shape their language networks.
Scientists tracked the brain activity of people who live in communities where multiple languages are spoken and can identify words in another language better than those who live in a monolingual environment.
The work started in the community around Pennsylvania University. According to Census data, the surrounding county is 85% white, and statewide, about 10% of residents speak a language other than English at home. For this study, researchers enrolled 18 people who were ‘functionally monolingual,’ based on their self-professed lack of proficiency in any language other than English.
Scientists asked participants to identify essential words and vowel patterns in an unfamiliar language — in this case, Finnish. Some of the classroom test results were similar between the two groups; the brain activity of those in the diverse-language setting was measurably more significant when it came to identifying words they hadn’t seen before.
Kinsey Bice, a postdoctoral fellow in the UW Department of Psychology and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, said, “This study shows that the brain is always working in the background. When you’re overhearing conversations in other languages, you pick up that information whether you know it or not.”
In another study conducted on 16 people, all monolingual English speakers — came from the community around the University of California, Riverside.
The researchers chose Finnish because it wasn’t familiar to either study location and relied on vowel-harmony rules that can be challenging for learners. Essentially, the vowels “ä,” “ö” and “y” — known as “front vowels” because they are formed in the front of the speaker’s mouth — cannot appear in the same words as the “back vowels”: “a,” “o” and “u.” For instance, “lätkä,” the word for “hockey,” contains only front vowels, while “naula,” the word for “nail,” contains only back vowels.
Across two hour-long sessions, the members were acquainted with 90 Finnish vocabulary words through cards named with the word, a picture of what the word spoke to, and an audio recording of a local speaker pronouncing the word. They likewise were approached to recognize nonsense and genuine Finnish words to help them to gather the vowel patterns.
In the end, members were tested on words they had learned and also new and fake Finnish words. For the test portion, members wore a headpiece equipped with individual sensors that measure brain activity by recognizing minute electrical signals on the scalp, a noninvasive technique called electroencephalography (EEG).
Both groups seem to have similar abilities to identify Finnish words they had studied and while determining the fake words. Neither group, however, indicated specific familiarity with differentiating between real words and fake words that they had not seen previously.
The EEG results, however, showed that the brains of the California participants, when shown the unknown words (real and nonsense), could tell the difference.
Bice said, “Brain and behavior data measure different time scales of information, she explained. Neurological measures show, millisecond by millisecond, how the brain processes what a person perceives. Behavioral measures can show a slight delay when compared to what’s happening in the brain because cognitive processes like decision-making and retrieving information from memory occur before a person answers a question or takes some action.”
“The results suggest an effect of ambient exposure to other languages. The groups were generally matched in terms of demographics and their proficiency in other languages; the only differences were the socioeconomic status and the language environment. If anything, the higher levels of education and income in the Pennsylvania community normally would be associated with greater language learning. That leaves the environment.”
“The difference in brain activity among the California participants is reminiscent of past research at the UW that shows neurological results often “outpace” behavioral, or classroom, results.”
“In the end, because of the lab relocation, the study findings were serendipitous. Further research could more formally control for various factors and expand the study pool. But this study shows the ways the human brain may absorb another language, itself a useful skill in a globalizing society.”
The study is published in the journal Brain and Language.