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Learning a new language changes the brain's division of labor

Adult language learning changes hemisphere specialization for comprehension but not production

Society for Neuroscience

Research News

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IMAGE: Language lateralization changes with increasing proficiency in a new language. view more 

Credit: Gurunandan et al., JNeurosci 2020

Learning a language later in life changes how the two halves of the brain contribute. As skills improve, language comprehension changes hemisphere specialization, but production does not, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

The two sides of the brain don't evenly split labor for every function. In most people, language relies on the left hemisphere, but the right hemisphere can take over after an injury to the left. The right hemisphere can also contribute when learning a new language, making it unclear if the left hemisphere is actually specialized for language.

Gurunandan et al. used fMRI to compare neural activity between hemispheres in adult language learners while reading, listening, and speaking in their native and new languages. In the earlier stages of language learning, native and new languages looked quite similar in the brain, but in advanced learners, the two languages were more distinct. The native and new languages were able to recruit opposite hemispheres for comprehension but speaking either language remained reliant on the left hemisphere. These results suggest production is hard-wired to the left hemisphere, while comprehension is more flexible. This may explain why it is more difficult to learn to speak a new language as an adult, even though it is possible to learn to understand it quite well.

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Manuscript title: Converging Evidence for Differential Specialisation and Plasticity of Language Systems

About JNeurosci

JNeurosci, the Society for Neuroscience's first journal, was launched in 1981 as a means to communicate the findings of the highest quality neuroscience research to the growing field. Today, the journal remains committed to publishing cutting-edge neuroscience that will have an immediate and lasting scientific impact, while responding to authors' changing publishing needs, representing breadth of the field and diversity in authorship.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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