Keeping the brain tidy

It was previously believed that different languages are stored separately in the brain; the since criticised language switch hypothesis suggested that bilinguals were able to activate and deactivate languages, and thus the associated area of the brain.

The findings of later experiments show the inaccuracy of this hypothesis. For example, in 1999 an eye-tracking study found that when English–Russian bilinguals were asked to move an object in Russian, using a word that also describes a different object in English, participants would look at the two objects. For instance, participants were instructed to “put the stamp below the cross”, yet the Russian word for stamp is “marka” which sounds similar to the English word “marker” (a type of pen).

Eye-tracking found that the participants would look back and forth at both the marker pen and the stamp before selecting the stamp, demonstrating that both languages are active in the brain when either language is used, and language cannot be simply switched on and off. Words in different languages that have similar pronunciations (such as the example of “Maka and “Marker”) are known as “false cognates” as unlike cognates (words that sound similar and mean the same thing) they sound similar but mean different things.

Cognates and false cognates are commonly used in recent literature as they provide great insight into the activation of languages in bilinguals. The Language Scientists podcast “keeping the brain tidy” discusses the research of Dr Walter Van Heuven; this study used cognates and false cognates to highlight how language is intermixed, and not simply stored separately. His research found that bilinguals are slower in responding to false cognates compared to control words, highlighting how words that have different meaning in both languages require additional processing as both languages are activated.

Brain imaging used in the study also supports this as it found that false cognates caused activation in the Medial Frontal area of the brain (this area is sensitive to response conflict), as well as activation in the Left and Right Prefrontal Cortex (areas linked with cognitive control and retrieval of information). These findings highlight that language is not simply turned off and on, but rather that languages are active in the brain at the same time, and the brain has a fascinating ability to control language and produce the appropriate responses. 

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