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.
However, if you want to learn a language, it is not just a question of wanting, but also discipline, commitment, and motivation. Language is something that you have to do — you need to go through the steps. Talent? Of course, some people are more talented, but it’s not quite clear what that is. There is no way to measure talent using imaging. Professor Andrews admits: “What I find is that people can start off at very different places, but the one who really achieves at the end of the day is the one who is willing to do the work. You just have to put the time in; it can’t happen by itself.”
According to Professor Andrews, empirical studies show that you can achieve native proficiency and speak more than one language without accent, and it does not have to be acquired before puberty. Our brain plasticity is much more robust than people imagined fifty years ago.
Multilingualism as a healthy lifestyle
It has also been shown that multilinguals can have a delay of as many as four years of the onset of dementia compared to so-called monolinguals or people who speak mainly one language (Professor Andrews doubts if there is such a thing as a monolingual, as we are all members of different speech communities and practices, we are always changing registers and styles).
Multilinguals possess cognitive reserve: When you are speaking one language, what are you doing with the others? You are inhibiting them. The systems that are serving languages overlap dramatically. Inhibition takes energy, but when you get good at it, it brings benefits. So, multilingualism is a very healthy lifestyle — it is like exercising.
Semiotics addresses how meaning is generated
According to Edna Andrews, who is also the author of the first monograph in English on Juri Lotman, semiotics as an epistemological method is deeply essential to understanding anything about the brain and language, including variation. Semiotics is about semiosis, which is a process of generating meaning.
“The bottom line is that everything we have been talking about is about understanding how meaning is generated, maintained, changed, distorted, lost, etc.” And: “At the end of the day, we are all very different. How can we still signify and communicate with so much variation? I think semiotics provides a wonderful metalanguage to conceptualise that.”
How knowing multiple languages enriches our worlds
“All our perceptions are mediated — that’s a biological fact,” says Professor Andrews. This means that all perceptions have to be interpreted based on certain baseline categories that we form, and languages can help us do that. But we are not prisoners to those — your language does not force you to be one thing or another. “That is another reason why multilingualism can be so inspiring and liberating, because you immediately have different options of how to view something.”
Let’s take the word ‘cauliflower.’ In Russian, it is ‘цветная капуста’ (literally: ‘colourful cabbage’). Russian language guides its speaker to admit that cauliflower belongs to the cabbage family, whereas in English this is not obvious at all (In Estonian, ‘cauliflower’ is ‘lillkapsas’ which conveys the meanings of both ‘flower’ and ‘cabbage’).
In his article ‘Language and Culture,’ Roman Jakobson stresses two things: Firstly, any language can say anything. And secondly, some languages make you say certain things.
This becomes obvious when you try to translate an English sentence: “A friend came over last night.” Try saying it to your Mom. In languages with grammatical gender, you will have to specify whether it was him or her who visited you. In some languages, you will need to be specific about whether your friend came and stayed, or not. Also, in English “last night” is a very broad timeframe that can mean anything starting from 5 pm till 4 am, whereas in other languages you would have to be much more specific about the timing.
The obvious conclusion is that all translations change meanings — either adding or subtracting them. As a result, “The world you live in becomes much more rich and colourful because you do have different ways of deciding how you want to divide that space. You just have more options, and I think it’s fun.”
Language helps us encode and remember
Traditionally, in psychological sciences, memory and language have not been allowed to engage with each other, but, in fact, they are deeply interrelated. We can imagine memory as multiple things going from encoding (one of its layers being linguistic), maintenance, and decoding (which can be recognition or recall).
The thing with encoding is that when you don’t notice something, chances are that you are not going to remember it. There is also a bias — our belief systems can skew what is getting in dramatically. And unfortunately, we tend to recreate our belief systems: We pay attention to something because we have decided a priori that it is relevant.
Why language is enjoyable
“Remember that all speech acts are negotiations,” says Edna Andrews, adding that this understanding comes from a Jakobsonian model that Lotman uses deeply. “Nobody wins. There can be a dominant, but the speaker is often not the dominant in the speech act. In fact, the most dominant is the context.”
Negotiations can be more difficult or less difficult, but they are still negotiations. And to come to a consensus is very difficult even within one language, even in one instance. We still don’t really completely know what the other person said. We are negotiating out of what we think they said and we try to overlap as much as possible.
Here again, Professor Andrews admires Lotman, who pointed this out brilliantly: “If we have speech acts that are completely contiguous, well, it is boring. That means that you and I had nothing to say to each other. But if I can pull you this way and you can pull me that way, there is a tension that takes us both to new areas — that is what language is really all about. Edna Andrews concludes: “This is really exciting and that is why we use language. I think there is an esthetic to language. It is something that we do because it is enjoyable.”
Listen to the full interview with Professor Edna Andrews:
Watch Professor Andrews’ guest lecture on the importance of Lotmanian semiotics to sign theory and the cognitive neurosciences: