Researchers Claim that Diverse Linguistic Environment Boosts Brain Sensitivity to New Learning

Sunday, September 1, 2019 - 10:26

Researchers of University of California, Irvine, have discovered that monolinguals living in a linguistically diverse environment may be reaping some rewards just by being in the vicinity of multiple languages.

According to the university's official website, researchers called this phenomenon as ambient linguistic diversity, "and we show – using EEG-measured brain activity – that it has the impact of increasing monolingual brain activity similar to what we see in bilinguals, even if the person doesn’t speak or understand a second language,” said co-author Judith Kroll, UCI Distinguished Professor of language science.

Based on the study, researchers examined how single-language speakers responded neurally and behaviorally when presented with a new foreign language, in this case Finnish.

“Finnish was used because it adheres to vowel harmony, a phonological constraint on how words are formed that prevents front vowels from co-occurring with back vowels,” said Kinsey Bice, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, “We tested whether or not monolinguals would be able to implicitly detect, extract and generalize these patterns to new words.”

In the study, 21 females and 13 males ranging in age from 18 to 35 who identified as native English-only speakers participated in a series of Finnish vocabulary lessons and comprehension tests while wearing an EEG cap that measured brain activity.

The goal of the study was to test whether or not participants would pick up on the vowel harmony violations and generalize the pattern to distinguish real from made-up words.

Monolinguals living in linguistically diverse contexts regularly overhear languages they do not understand and may absorb information about those languages in ways that shape their language networks,” a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, Kroll said. “Considering the consequences of the ambient environment together with other sources of individual variation will frame an important new agenda for research on language, learning and cognition.”

The novel findings have been published online in Brain & Language. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number BCS-1551892.


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