If you have heard something about languages and the brain, chances are that your knowledge is heavily biased towards the role of the left hemisphere of the human brain. It is amazing how this 19th-century model can still be found even in psychology textbooks.
“Thank goodness the imaging technology has made it absolutely clear: Language is a bi-hemispheric phenomenon,” says Edna Andrews, Professor of Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, who navigates in the fascinating realm of linguistics, neurosciences, and semiotics. Language ability is much more distributed in the brain and is much more variable from person to person.
You may know that language is a grey matter phenomenon, but sub-cortical white matter fiber tracks are also extremely important for making connections in the brain. Those connections are made, unmade, and remade constantly. The faster you learn something — be it languages, playing a musical instrument, or something else — if you stop, the faster you lose it. “There is something to gradual and continuous learning as opposed to abrupt explosive moments which are not sustainable,” knows Andrews.
In addition to language acquisition, the multilingual professor works with a full range of issues that have to do with languages and the brain throughout the entire life cycle, including language maintenance and loss. And whenever you deal with brain and language, it is always about culture and identity as well. “Language is learned in a cultural context and it tells us who we are, who we see ourselves being,” points out Andrews. “If you don’t want to talk to people who speak that language, if you don’t like them, you are in big trouble. If you are forced to learn a language — and this happens a lot in school — you do terribly.”
So, the bottom line is: If you are not doing well in languages, it’s probably not your brain’s fault. It’s about so many things: motivation, goals, identity. Continue reading