Multilinguish: Your Brain On Language

Brains! Language! It’s pretty complicated (but oh so elegant).
January 12, 2021
Multilinguish: Your Brain On Language

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Most of us take it for granted that we can talk, text, read and study second and third languages if we’re feeling ambitious. But what exactly goes on inside your head to make language possible? What are the mechanics necessary create speech, and how does that differ from the mechanics of writing? Does reading Braille require different parts of the brain than reading text on a page, and how exactly does bilingualism reshape your mind?

In this episode of Multilinguish, we tackle an exceedingly vast and complicated topic in a way that will hopefully be fun and accessible for everyone who didn’t study neuroscience in college — that is, by quite literally bringing the brain to life. Then, we explore various ways things can go wrong in the brain and test our newfound knowledge in a quick round of trivia that you can play along with at home.

Multilinguish: Your Brain On Language

First thing’s first: we offer you a lay of the land. There are several moving parts involved in producing language in the brain, and in order to make them memorable, we basically turned them into stock characters. Senior Producer Steph Koyfman takes us on a journey through the mind, and Babbel content squad friends Jen Jordan, Diana Tur, Dylan Lyons, David Doochin, and Thomas Devlin make cameos along the way as various parts of the brain, personified.

Next, Jen and David join Steph for multiple-choice trivia. In this segment, we dive into a deeper level of nuance involving language in the brain by making our best educated guesses at why (or how) things can occasionally work in unexpected ways, particularly in response to brain injuries. Why, for instance, can aphasia patients sing, but not speak? Listen and find out.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by Steph Koyfman and edited by Brian Rosado. Jen Jordan, Diana Tur, Dylan Lyons, David Doochin, and Thomas Devlin make guest appearances, and Babbel didactics experts Cornelia Lahmann and Taylor Hermerding shared their linguistic expertise with us for this episode. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

How Learning A Language Benefits Your Brain | Babbel Magazine
How To Use Your Right Brain For Language Learning | Babbel Magazine
The Right Brain’s Critical Role In Language Learning | ScienceDaily
Singing After A Stroke | ScienceDaily
Why Do Our Brains Remember Certain Words Over Others? | Babbel Magazine
Adaptive Forgetting Of Competing Memories | Nature Neuroscience
Tip Of The Tongue Moments In Bilinguals | New Scientist
Is It Possible To Forget Your Mother Tongue? | Babbel Magazine
Unlocking The Brain: When Language Knowledge Can’t Be Explained | Babbel Magazine

Transcript

Steph Koyfman: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m Senior Producer Steph Koyfman. 

For nearly two centuries, the scientific community has known that something remarkable happens to patients who suffer from a stroke in the left half of their brain. These people can wind up with serious speech disorders when the stroke damages the language areas in the brain’s left hemisphere — a condition known as non-fluent aphasia — but for some reason, their ability to sing remains intact. 

Okay look, it’s not just any reason. We’re actually a lot closer to understanding why singing and speaking are two somewhat separate functions that rely on different brain mechanisms. But doesn’t that make you kind of curious about that enigmatic piece of equipment that’s sitting inside your skull? We take this stuff for granted all the time, but what exactly goes on in your head when you’re speaking another language? What happens when you learn a new one, or forget your mother tongue as you age in another country? Does reading Braille require different parts of your brain than reading text in a page? Why does the aphasia patient sing? 

In this episode, we’ll deconstruct the parts of the brain that make language possible by quite literally bringing them to life. Then, we’ll explore the various ways things can go wrong in the brain as a means of getting closer to the mystery. But don’t worry, we’ll try to keep it fun and light, too. 

Before we get started, a reminder to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen, and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released. 

You can probably visualize a brain right now if I asked you to, right? You’re good with that image of a wrinkly, pinkish, intestinal-looking thing that sits on a stalk? Am I going to lose you if I start throwing out words like temporal lobe and insular cortex? Would it help if you visualized it like a pomegranate instead, where there are two distinct halves, but also clusters of seeds within those halves that are attached to a sort of filmy connective tissue?

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it kind of works. You can think of the seeds as the gray matter in the brain, which is made up mostly of neurons. And the connective tissue is the white matter, which extends out from and supports the cells in the gray matter. The white matter is basically like a fiber tract that connects different parts of the brain like a system of telephone wires, carrying electrical signals between different parts of the brain.

If you were actually looking at a human brain, you’d see mostly gray matter in the outer layer and white matter underneath it. The outer layer with all the gray matter is also known as the cerebral cortex, which is where a lot of the smarty pants stuff happens in our brains. Stuff like thought, consciousness, memory, language. 

Both the right half and the left half are involved in language. But the right hemisphere is sort of the more creative, artsy sibling of the left hemisphere, who stays late after school for math club.

Jen Jordan: It’s like, whatever, man.

Diana Tur: No, I actually didn’t know what that means.

Steph Koyfman: The right hemisphere is generally thought to be involved in the non-language-y parts of language, if that makes sense. Things like rhythm, intonation, reading emotional cues, picking up on sarcasm, reading body language, humor.

Jen Jordan: What I’m saying is, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s, like, a right hemisphere thing. You wouldn’t understand.

Diana Tur: Look, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to upset you. When I say things like, “Put the cheese away before Mom gets home,” that’s literally what I mean. I’m not implying anything about how much you ate or that I’m mad at you.

Steph Koyfman: The right hemisphere is what we use to read between the lines and infer things beyond the literal meaning of words. Patients with right hemisphere lesions often struggle to answer questions about a text that require them to put it all together, if that makes sense. But the left hemisphere does do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Diana Tur: That’s right, I do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Steph Koyfman: The left half of the brain is basically language central for things like vocabulary, grammar and processing sounds, but it’s not quite as cut and dried as it sounds. Every person’s brain develops differently, so the two halves of the brain don’t always split the load of language processing the same way. Even something like being right-handed or left-handed can influence how your right brain and left brain work together to produce language. 

And actually, people who grow up bilingual tend to experience a more even distribution across the two hemispheres. This is something that’s referred to as bilateral activation. Typically, language processing is lateralized mostly to the left hemisphere, but if that part of the brain is, I don’t know, say, injured, then the right hemisphere can also compensate for that a bit. So you see what I mean when I say it’s kind of complicated. 

Okay, but having said all of that, the left hemisphere has a lot of moving parts that we’ll need to get to know to understand how this all works. There’s a spot kind of close to your left temple called the Broca’s area. Hi, Broca’s area.

Dylan Lyons: What up, what up, I’m Broca. But you can call me Bro for short. I’m the guy in charge of planning speech production, like getting you to the point where you can actually talk and stuff. But I also help you understand words too. Basically, I take thoughts and I help put them into words by telling the broskis over in the motor cortex what steps they need to take so that you can actually talk and stuff. They call that motor control in the fancy science books. But down here, we just call that leg day.

Steph Koyfman: When there’s damage to the Broca’s area, patients can lose the ability to speak or write fluently, or they might still be able to produce basic nouns, but lose the ability to string it together grammatically. Another major player is the Wernicke’s area, which is next to the Broca’s area, but a little further to the back of your head. Here’s Wernicke.

David Doochin: Hello, pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Mr. Wernicke. I like to sit in my armchair and philosophize about semantics. You can’t actually comprehend language without me because I’m the one in charge of assigning context and meaning to words. Look, I don’t make the rules. So don’t shoot the messenger. No, literally though, if I get hurt or injured, you’ll wind up sounding like you’re speaking in a way that makes sense because your intonation, gestures and sentence length sound right. But if you actually listen to the words, it would just sound like gibberish.

Steph Koyfman: So Broca and Wernicke might have different jobs, but they’re super close, as in: they text each other 24/7. They’re actually connected by a bundle of white matter called the arcuate fasciculus.

Jen Jordan: Yep, that’s me, the arcuate fasciculus. I spend all day, every day being Miss Information Super-Highway and getting these two on the same page. It’s exhausting, but someone’s got to do it. And anyway, I like to get involved in everything. Just everything about languages is super interesting to me. I do verbal working memory, and scientists think I might have a role in helping you learn new vocabulary. But basically, I’m the reason you have such instant coordination between the part of your brain that says the word and the part of your brain that hears and recognizes the word.

Steph Koyfman: A little further back behind the Wernicke’s area is the angular gyrus, which is involved in a number of complex language processes.

Thomas Devlin: Picture me taking a slow drag on a cigarette. I’m sort of a jack of all trades. I’m the association man. I allow you to associate a word with your mental image of that thing or a sensation it causes, or broader concepts and ideas. It’s believed that I’m responsible for understanding metaphors. I also do number processing, spatial recognition, memory retrieval, and some cool tricks that help you pay attention.

Steph Koyfman: So these are just the main characters, but there are many other components of your central nervous system that play a role whenever you read, write, speak, or listen. 

For instance, reading. First, the optic nerve would send information from your eyes to the visual cortex. That’s assuming you can see, of course. If you’re reading Braille, the sensory cortex would receive the input you get from your fingertips. But different areas of the brain then immediately activate in the blink of an eye, working together kind of like a symphony. It’s never one part of the brain doing anything in isolation. 

For reading, these include white matter pathways in the brain, which connect the back of the brain’s reading network to the front and temporal lobe, which handles phonological awareness or the recognition of the sound structures of language.

David Doochin: That is I. Wernicke’s area is part of the temporal lobe.

Dylan Lyons: Broca here. I know I’m the speech production guy, but don’t forget, language comprehension is kind of my side hustle.

Thomas Devlin: Give some points to me and my companion, the supramarginal gyrus. Us gyri link things together in your brain so that you can make sense of letter shapes. Otherwise, it’d just be a jumble of letters that you don’t even recognize as words.

Steph Koyfman: Okay, so let’s take writing as another example. You have the frontal lobe involved as part of the planning process, as in figuring out what you want to write about and how you’re going to approach it. Your hippocampus would then get to work, retrieving information in your long-term memory.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah. And Broca’s the guy who turns your memories into words. The little voice in your head that helps you narrate stuff. Don’t mention it.

David Doochin: Yes, but every good writer needs an editor. That’s why Wernicke steps in to make it all make sense. No offense.

Steph Koyfman: The visual cortex also gets involved to process the visual associations you have when you’re looking at the words on the page, and the motor area in your frontal lobe would be responsible for helping you carry out the motor functions of writing or typing.

Things get even more interesting when you add more languages into the mix. Brains are not only complex, but they exhibit plasticity, which basically means they’re capable of structurally changing and rewiring themselves to adapt to our experiences over time. Second language learning is something that research has shown to contribute to positive brain changes, no matter when in life you do it. Bilingualism actually leads to more gray matter in your brain, as well as increased levels of white matter integrity. So it’s kind of a win-win all around.

People who are lifelong bilinguals show enhanced network activity in their prefrontal and parietal regions, which leads to greater cognitive control. Basically, you wind up having a stronger ability to filter out unnecessary information and tune out distractions. It kind of makes sense, given that you’re constantly switching between languages. It’s like doing pushups for your brain. 

Okay, and get this. One of the most exciting things that we’ve learned about bilingualism is that it might create what’s called a cognitive reserve, which is basically like a rainy day fund for your mind. Essentially, it builds your brain’s resistance to the ravages of time and aging. This could mean anything from delaying the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s to increasing your chances of recovering after a stroke. 

Anyway, you get the point. There are so many moving parts that cooperate to help you produce, understand and learn language. And the brain itself is kind of a moving target. It’s a lot, but then you kind of have to take a step back and really consider and appreciate what a sophisticated and elegant thing it is: this thing called language.

Thomas Devlin: Hey, it’s Thomas. Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that we offer an app that teaches you 14 languages, from Spanish, French, and Italian to Portuguese, Russian and more. Babbel’s app is created by real language teachers and experts. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real-life situations, whether you need to greet your neighbors in Turkey or play chess against the embodiment of death in Sweden. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three-month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast. Now, back to the show.

Steph Koyfman: Most of what we know about the brain when it comes to language comes from situations where the brain is not necessarily working as it should, which is often due to an injury. So, this isn’t the case so much anymore, but it was for a long time before we had advanced medical imaging like MRIs. 

Actually, the most famous example of this involved the discovery of the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. In 1861, French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca discovered a lesion in the brain of a deceased patient who was unable to speak, but who didn’t have any readily apparent motor impairments when the original symptoms appeared. So that was how they made the connection between the Broca’s area and what it does. And then a couple of years later in 1867, Carl Wernicke had a case on his hands where the patient could speak, but was not able to actually understand the language. Later, he was able to locate where the damage existed in the brain. And you can probably guess the rest. 

We have better technology to do our research now, but we can still learn a lot about the way that the brain functions by exploring unusual case studies or examples of how the brain sometimes works in ways that we don’t expect.

Here with me right now are producer David Doochin and VP and head of content Jen Jordan, and we’re about to break into a game of multiple choice trivia. So if you’re listening at home, feel free to play along and put your new cognitive brain science knowledge to the test. Hi, David. Hi, Jen.

Jen Jordan: Hi, Steph.

David Doochin: Hi, everyone.

Steph Koyfman: How is everyone?

David Doochin: Doing well, ready to get my mental gears spinning.

Steph Koyfman: Awesome.

Jen Jordan: I feel like I can relate to being able to speak, but not understanding what’s happening.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. It’s been that kind of day. So are you guys ready for the first question?

David Doochin: Bring it on.

Jen Jordan: I hope so.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. So aphasia is a term that describes speech impairments that are caused by brain damage. My question to you, why can aphasia patients sometimes sing but not speak? Is it A, because the parts of the brain that most support speaking are in a different half of the brain than the parts that most support singing? Is it B, it’s actually not so much about singing as it is speaking with a rhythm, or C, it’s actually not so much about singing as it is speaking with a rhythm and relying on your memory for well-known song lyrics?

Jen Jordan: So David, let’s confer here. You know that singing helps you remember things, right?

David Doochin: Of course.

Jen Jordan: So it’s A, or B, right? Because it has something to do with song lyrics. That’s obviously a red herring designed to throw us off.

David Doochin: Well, I think of how Alzheimer’s patients or dementia patients, I’m not sure which one, but they often can’t remember much about the major and minor details of their lives, but they connect with music from their past as like a form of therapy. I’ve seen those really, really heartbreaking, but also heartwarming videos of these patients who can remember every single lyric to, and the melody to the songs they used to sing as children, but nothing else. And that makes me think that it might be C. If I remember C correctly, it’s that singing has a lot to do with memory, and not just the lyrics and the melody. Was that actually the right choice?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Yes, so C was that it has to do with the rhythm and the memory.

Jen Jordan: Interesting.

David Doochin: So Jen what do you think?

Jen Jordan: So what was, can you repeat A and B again for me?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. So A was that the parts of the brain that support singing and speaking are in different halves. So you’re using a different half of your brain. And then B was that it’s not as much about the singing as it is about the rhythm.

Jen Jordan: Hmm. And C was the… It’s about—

Steph Koyfman: Both rhythm and memory.

Jen Jordan: Both for the rhythm and memory. Now, David, you have me convinced it’s got to be C.

David Doochin: Well now I’m worried that it’s not C, and I just took you down the wrong path.

Steph Koyfman: There’s no wrong path. It all leads to learning.

David Doochin: It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: I’m going to be a contrarian and just say it’s A, they’re in different halves of the brain because if one half of your brain is busted the other side, it’s still able to pick up the slack. Final answer. Does it hurt playing this final answer?

David Doochin: Are we a team Jen or are we competing against each other?

Steph Koyfman: It’s not a competition!

Jen Jordan: We started out as a team, but now I’m going [inaudible].

Steph Koyfman: Would it make you guys feel better if you won a prize at the end?

Jen Jordan: It’s just—

David Doochin: I always feel better when I win a prize. So can’t say no to that. I’m going to stick with C, Jen’s going with A.

Steph Koyfman: Is that your final answer? Okay…

David Doochin: Locked in.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. David you’re right.

Jen Jordan: I knew it. David is always right.

Steph Koyfman:  Well, he has a linguistics background, so it’s kind of unfair.

David Doochin: Linguists are always right.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. So Jen, to be fair, for a long time, we did assume that it was because they were using a different half of their brain, but we only learned like as recently as 2011 that, or I guess there was some new research that came out in 2011 that kind of suggested that maybe it’s actually not so much about singing, but the rhythm and the formulaic nature of song lyrics. Because there was a study done by German researchers and they basically had the subjects repeat these formulaic phrases like, “How are you?” that we’re kind of used to saying, or like saying things in a really rhythmic way. And they had the same results as if they were singing.

Jen Jordan: That’s interesting.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. So basically that’s kind of changed like the prevailing theory around why people can sing but not speak sometimes.

Jen Jordan: I’m ready to redeem myself.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. Don’t take it so hard. Okay. So next question. Why do our brains remember certain words over others? A, we’re more likely to remember the words that we learned as children because that information is stored in a different part of the brain. B, the brain is constantly discarding memories that are similar to memories it’s competing for space with. So it’s kind of a use it or lose it situation, or C, our brains latch onto sounds that we were exposed to early in the womb.

David Doochin: Ooh, this one’s a good question. I’m trying to think of learning even as a child vocabulary, that I’ve long since forgotten because maybe I wasn’t a child child. Maybe I was more late elementary school or middle school, but there are words that I learned back in the day, or I had to commit to memory for a test that I’ve forgotten right now. And I feel like I’m leaning towards B for that reason. It’s like, if I’m not constantly refreshing my memory on the usage of a word in different contexts, then it’s just going to be pushed out because my brain only has so much capacity. I also think of like, learning foreign languages. Sometimes I can think of a word in Spanish, but I can’t actually think of its translation in English. And I’m a native English speaker.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: And if I’m just practicing Spanish more often or practicing a certain set of words or vocabulary, I’m probably more likely to remember that word over the English one.

Jen Jordan: Yeah. I’m torn between A and B. C is a throwaway because you can’t hear anything in the womb. It’s all muffled. Maybe that’s not entirely true. I’m not a noted neurologist or a memory expert of any kind actually. I do think it’s interesting about the fact that maybe we’re storing long-term memories in a different part of our brain than short-term memories because in my experience languages I studied early on like French, when I took other languages, like in college, I took Russian, I would forget the Russian word and accidentally substitute the French word in its place, which is very confusing because English is my first language. And I wasn’t thinking of the English word. I was thinking of the French word.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: And I’m wondering if that’s because my brain was just pulling like the next available word that it knew I had learned, but I also think if you don’t use it, you do lose it at a certain point.

Steph Koyfman: Yes. The whole spaced repetition thing.

Jen Jordan: Yeah. I do like this friendly little competition that David and I have. So if he’s going with B, I think I’m going to go with A.

David Doochin: What, Jen don’t let me force you out of choosing what your heart tells you is true.

Steph Koyfman: This isn’t like going to a restaurant where you can’t both order the same thing.

Jen Jordan: I just always want to share. No, I do think I’m probably shooting myself in the foot because I’m guessing maybe there’s not separate parts of the brain that were completely compartmentalizing, but I’m going to say it’s A because of my experience learning French first and then Russian, and being constantly confused between the two.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. So it’s B.

David Doochin: I warned you Jen.

Jen Jordan: It’s okay.

Steph Koyfman: Well, its actually, so sometimes we do randomly remember things and it has nothing to do with repetition. And sometimes, our brains will latch onto something that has seemingly very little, like just like some sort of random word or memory. And that actually tends to happen during emotionally charged events because stress hormones, like epinephrine and cortisol actually cement memories in our brains. But generally speaking, our brains are always trying to be really efficient about storage. And they’ll be trying to make room for the words that we do use frequently by tossing out the ones that we don’t use.

Jen Jordan: Is this why you remember things in our teenage years so much more clearly because it’s just such a traumatic, stressful time in our lives.

Steph Koyfman: I think so. Yeah. I think that has… Yeah. Every day seemed longer when we were younger because everything was just such a shock.

Jen Jordan: Man. I wonder how much of 2020 we’re going to remember because it’s going to be a real trip.

David Doochin: I don’t know about you but I’m trying to black out the entire experience and just pretend it never existed. Will it work? Only time will tell, but we’ll see.

Steph Koyfman: Well, Jen, I do also want to kind of like back up your reasoning because bilinguals do experience more tip of the tongue moments than monolingual people, which is when, like they might struggle to remember a word that they want to use. But a little interesting tidbit is that based on research, we’re pretty sure that this isn’t about sound but more about the concept of the word because people who speak sign language go through the same thing. So it’s kind of interesting.

Jen Jordan: Interesting. All right. I feel slightly better about my explanation here.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Okay. Are you ready for the next question?

Jen Jordan: I’m okay with being wrong because I’m learning. It’s fine.

Steph Koyfman: Exactly. So, okay. Most of the brain’s main language processing centers are located in the left hemisphere. So why is the right hemisphere also important when it comes to language learning? A, it plays an important role in helping learners familiarize themselves with the basic sounds and the acoustic details of a language. B, it helps you pick up on nonverbal communication, like body language and emotional cues, or C, it helps you register tone, which is especially important for tonal languages like Mandarin.

Jen Jordan: Ooh. We know stereotypically, if you’re right-brained, you’re more like artistic or able to express yourself. Isn’t that generally the stereotype?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, it is. 

Jen Jordan: So theoretically it would be, I don’t know. It could be any of them, Steph you made these really hard.

Steph Koyfman: I’m sorry. I feel like I wasn’t about to toss you guys any softballs with this.

Jen Jordan: I wonder what David thinks first.

David Doochin: I feel like I’m getting PTSD from like the verbal section of the SAT or something where all of them could be right if you really think about it, but only one is the best answer. 

My thoughts on this one are Jen I’m with you on the, like the right-brained, I’ve always heard that people who are right-brained are more creative, artistic, whatever. And that makes me think maybe A, like the sounds and pitches have to do with musicality. And I generally think of people who are really right-brained and creative as being more in touch with their musical sides. This is all based on just like the urban legends that we’ve all heard since the beginning of time. I don’t know how true they are, but that seems like it checks out to me. I’m hesitant about C because tonal languages, not every language is a tonal language. So it seems like that part of the brain would only be used or like unlocked if you’re speaking a tonal language like Chinese or Thai or Vietnamese or something that we don’t speak. I have a hard time believing that.

Steph Koyfman: Well, I should say that when I say it helps you register tone, I don’t only mean in the context of a tonal language, like tone, as in, can you tell if someone’s being sarcastic?

Jen Jordan: Yeah.

David Doochin: Okay.

Jen Jordan: Like some people just aren’t good at detecting sarcasm.

Steph Koyfman: And don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. It could be more than one.

Jen Jordan: Is it all three?

Steph Koyfman:Yes.

David Doochin: Oh my God, Steph, that’s not fair.

Jen Jordan: I was going to try to make a case for B, but I was like, all of these are sounding very related to me.

Steph Koyfman: Well, you guys were both kind of inclined to say that anyway. So I’m sorry that I hit you with a trick question, but it is all of the above.

Jen Jordan: I feel so much better now for getting one. I get one right.

David Doochin: Well, that makes me think of how language is so much more than just the content of the words that we speak. It’s like, the emotional expression and body language and facial cues are so important. And I don’t know what the statistic is, but I remember reading somewhere or maybe we talked about it on Multilinguish before that up to 90% of language is non-verbal cues or non linguistic cues. So like everything outside of the actual content, the words, but more of the infrastructure of language, and how we convey meaning outside of the just speech sounds. So that all makes sense, but I’m a little bit salty, I’m not going to lie, that you didn’t tell us. And you made us really, really strain our brains trying to choose just one.

Steph Koyfman: I’m so sorry. I know that was kind of evil.

Jen Jordan: We all learned.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. But it’s actually kind of interesting too because there’s been research that’s shown that the right brain is especially active in the beginning when you’re engaged in like the sound recognition process. And they found that the study participants who had more of that right brain activation ended up being more successful in the long run, even though the left hemisphere eventually takes over.

Jen Jordan: That’s really interesting.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: So when you’re conversing with somebody or communicating, it sounds like a lot of your brain is lit up at that point. That’s pretty amazing. I would think it would be only a small section.

Steph Koyfman: No, I feel like it’s, there’s so many different parts of your brain that have to work together in tandem to make communication happen.

David Doochin: Yeah. You’re like, problem-solving, you’re improvising, you’re active listening.

Jen Jordan: I probably should have used more parts of my brain for this quiz. 

Steph Koyfman: I feel like I lost David’s trust forever.

David Doochin: I’ll always put my trust in you.

Jen Jordan: Okay.

Steph Koyfman: All right. So no more trick questions though. Are you ready for the next one?

David Doochin: Please.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. When first language attrition occurs in the brain, and I should just define for anyone who doesn’t know, first language attrition is when someone primarily speaks in a second or third language, and they begin to lose fluency in their first language as they get older. So when first language attrition occurs in the brain, which of these language aspects tends to fade from memory first, is it A, the grammatical structure of the language, B, the vocabulary, or C, the phonology or the sound?

Jen Jordan: I want to say it’s vocab only because of anecdotal stories of our coworkers who speak English all day and all week, and then speak their native language, and forget words.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: I think this is a story Ruben told us one time or told me at some point.

David Doochin: Yeah. That checks out to me. I’ve heard stories like that in linguistics classes. I’ve also learned a little bit about this phenomenon and I think when you learn a language or you, I think linguists like to talk about acquiring language because a lot of “learning” your first language is actually way more subconscious. You’re not sitting down and taking notes and taking tests and learning vocab. It just all comes to you.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: And I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that like grammar structures, I think option B or maybe option A, they’re more inherent and locked in then vocab, which are kind of more vocab words are the pieces that fit into that structure. And it seems like it’s more of a use it or lose it situation with those two. Like the grammatical structure of a language is something that is less likely to leave you because it’s so embedded in your neural network. But the vocab, you only really learn vocab when you pick it up from the environment, someone else in your life using a word. And it doesn’t seem to stick as much, I guess is what I’m saying.

Steph Koyfman: Well you’re both right.

Jen Jordan: Yes.

David Doochin: Yes.

Steph Koyfman: So the answer is—

Jen Jordan: Good job, David.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Like you both said knowledge of grammar and phonology tends to remain more stable. Yeah. So we talked about how like bilinguals tend to experience more tip of the tongue moments than monolingual people, right? Because they have these two words that mean the same thing that are competing for space, but the phonology or the sound tends to be a lot more ingrained. And that’s actually one of the reasons it’s so hard to lose your accent as an adult, but basically you have this sound map that your baby brain started creating pretty much as soon as you were born and like, the older you get the more ingrained it gets. So that’s why usually the last frontier or the last hurdle for a lot of people is nailing their accent.

Jen Jordan: It makes sense.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Okay. Are you ready for the last question?

Jen Jordan: As ready as I’m going to be.

Steph Koyfman: Okay. Why do some head trauma patients wind up involuntarily speaking in foreign languages they may have studied long ago with seemingly perfect accents out of nowhere. Is it A, the trauma stimulated blood flow to their limbic system activating stored memories, B, it’s a form of dissociative identity disorder where the native language identity splits off and goes into hiding, or C, the injury was to a region of their brain where native language knowledge is stored, causing another part of the brain to take over where second language knowledge is stored.

David Doochin: So I’m tempted to say, it’s not A, just because I don’t think all trauma events are the same. So to say that every single trauma event, whether it’s physical or emotional, I guess we’re talking physical trauma to the brain, right?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: I don’t know if every single physical trauma that happens to the brain would redirect blood flow to a separate part of the brain. What happens if it was that part of some blood vessel that would otherwise deliver blood to a certain part of the brain is traumatized or injured as well. But I think that it’s B, I don’t know because B we’re talking about more of like a personality sort of consequence. And I guess, C, we’re talking about more of like a physicality, like an anatomical consequence. And that makes me think like every traumatic event that happens to someone’s brain isn’t going to be anatomically similar to someone else’s. So it’s like, how do we know what actually happens to the tissue in the brain? Like it just seems more likely to me that there’s this dissociative response that is measurable outside of a physical injury. None of what I said just made sense, but I’m trying to think out loud.

Steph Koyfman: No, it makes sense.

Jen Jordan: I’m leaning towards, I think it was C, the one where the injury damaged a part of the place in your brain where you have your native language stored only because we know that people with traumatic brain injuries, some people are able to lose large parts of their brain and their brain starts to pick up slack from other areas that may be damaged or missing. So we know that the brain can compensate for other areas. And I’m wondering if maybe that could be what’s happening here. 

I’d also like to offer option D which is, you want to assume a new identity. In the mid-century this seems like a really good way to do it. So I think that would be the more fun answer that I would prefer. But if we have to choose from the above, I’m going to go with C just to be different from David, which means it’s probably wrong.

David Doochin: No, I actually think that I’m going to stick with B just because that was my first intuition, but I think Jen, you have a good chance of being right on this one.

Steph Koyfman: So Jen, you just redeemed yourself.

Jen Jordan: Yes, oh thank God.

Steph Koyfman: So this is sometimes referred to as foreign accent syndrome, but a more technical term is bilingual or polyglot aphasia. So we talked about aphasia already, right? Which is damage to any part of the brain’s language cortex. But it’s interesting because it can really play out in a handful of ways and like yeah. Who says you can’t suddenly wake up from a head injury, speaking a language that you studied in high school. But yeah. So basically the languages that you learn as a small child are generally not going to be stored in the same area where your second language is. And depending on how it kind of shakes out, patients can sometimes involuntarily switch between languages or they might only be able to speak one language at a time. But yeah, it’s super interesting.

Jen Jordan: That’s pretty amazing.

David Doochin: That seems crazy to me. I understand, I guess how it works, but the thought that like all of these repressed memories, I guess you could call them repressed memories are just waiting to be unlocked and it takes some sort of traumatic event to do that. Just really weird.

Jen Jordan: We normally use a small portion of our brain. It’s pretty incredible. The studies they’ve done in terms of like how you can unlock different parts of your brain, and use different parts. It’s crazy. We contain multitudes.

David Doochin: What’s the plot of the movie Limitless? Wasn’t it like unlock? What if you can unlock one hundred percent of your brain?

Steph Koyfman: I don’t think I saw that.

David Doochin: I actually didn’t see it either, but it’s like the famous clip of Morgan Freeman being like, “What if you could unlock a hundred percent of your brain?” I don’t know.

Steph Koyfman: It sounds like one of those bad pickup lines that like a pickup artist would use at a bar, “Do you know we only use 10 percent of our brain?”

Jen Jordan: That’s much more cerebral than my experiences.

Steph Koyfman: Anyway, thank you guys so much for joining me today and thank you for straining to match or follow along with my deceitful ways. 

Jen Jordan: It was pretty fun.

David Doochin: I appreciate the cunning and the tomfoolery that kept me on my toes. But now my brain, I feel like I’m going through some sort of aphasia. This was a brain strain and I need to rest up so I can actually use language effectively again.

Steph Koyfman: Okay, well I’ll let you go.

Jen Jordan: Thanks so much Steph.

David Doochin: Thanks.

Jen Jordan: It was fun David.

Steph Koyfman: Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. This episode was produced by me, Steph Koyfman, with help and special cameos from Jen Jordan, Diana Tur, Dylan Lyons, David Doochin and Thomas Devlin. Editing and sound design is by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Babbel didactics experts Cornelia Lahmann and Taylor Hermerding for sharing their linguistic expertise with us for this episode. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit B A B B E L.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us at @BabbelUSA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.

Group: Welcome to the multiple choice trivia round.

David Doochin: I didn’t know you were doing that right now.

Steph Koyfman: Let’s try it again. Okay.

Group: Welcome to the multiple choice trivia round.

Jen Jordan: I don’t know if we should keep that.

Steph Koyfman: That can be in the bloopers.

Flex your mind muscle.
Author Headshot
Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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