How do languages work in our brains?

VeryCoolSpouse and I (and the 3 little ones) visited some Chinese friends over the weekend. We are both native English speakers, they both speak English very well but Chinese is their birth language. There happened to be a trivet on the table, and I asked if there is a Chinese word for “trivet.” Neither of them had heard the word; both VeryCoolSpouse and I knew it.

I’ve probably heard the word 5 times in my life (I’m 55 years old), but had no problem bringing it to mind. When I’m studying Chinese, I have to repeat a word many more times than that before I can remember it, and even then it disappears from my brain if I don’t refresh it once a week or so. Why is that? How can I remember obscure English words that I haven’t used for years, but Chinese words evaporate in moments?

Before this question gets pushed past page one, I just wanted to reassure you there is an answer to your question, and it is: No one has a clue.

It is acknowledged that in general, things are as you have experienced them. And they know that different parts of the brain activate when learning one’s first language as opposed to learning a second one later in life, and when speaking in one’s first language and when speaking a second language. They also know that up to a certain age (around 11, IIRC) you can learn any number of languages as a “first” language, whether simultaneously or “in series.” And they know that successful second-language learning requires very different methods compared to successful first-language learning. (First language learning works like this: Hang out with people who speak that language for a year or two, and you’ve got it. Second-language learning generally takes study and rote practice. Language immersion helps a little, but won’t get you there like it will for first-language learning.)

As to “how” it all works, nobody knows.


I remember reading a statement from someone (Peg Bracken?) that it’s a pity no matter how well you learn a second lanugage, you’ll never learn the words for things like bowling balls and diaper pins.

I was pretty sure that it’s not well understood, but I was HOPING :slight_smile: for “the current state of the art” or “most scientists believe” or something similar.

I’m quite aware of the “learn it before you’re 11 or you won’t speak it like a native” bit. The dendrites in our brains harden up around the 10-12 year range and there are lots of things that you can’t learn (or not well) after that. My 7-year-old has “lazy eye”* and the eye doc says she must learn to use it before she turns 10 or she won’t EVERY be able to see out of that eye.

  • Vision was so bad in that eye that the brain stopped using it. Now that she has glasses, her brain still isn’t using it. Solution: patch over the strong eye 3 hours per day forces use of the “bad” (now corrected) eye so that the nerves regrow–it’s working great sez the doc.

Dang it, I DID preview.

“EVERY be able to see” should be “EVER be able to see”


Very good and interesting question, for which probably there is indeed no known answer now.

What is surprising to me is the difference people have in being able to master foreign languages. I took Latin in HS, German in college, learned some Japanese when I lived there, tried Spanish a few times, all with limited success.

I have no ability for learning a second language and struggled greatly to try to learn any of the above, with not much success. Yet my English is probably above par and have a good command of vocabulary, even in my dotage.

Yet there are linguists who can master a large number of disparate languages with ease. Obviously the brains of those do so and mine differ, and it would indeed be interesting to know the function that permits mastering many languages.

I have a theory, constructed out of whole cloth, that it is possibly linked to ability to master music. I know a few professional musicians who seem quite adept at learning other languages. Who knows?

You might interested in this book by Steven Mithen: The Singing Neanderthals : The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. I read it a few weeks ago, and although I don’t necessarily buy into his thesis, he does present some very interesting ideas.

Thanks, read the reviews and it sounds fascinating and probably fun. Think I’ll get a copy.

I’m generalizing from one example here–namely, myself–but I find that being able to keep using it is really the key with 2nd languages. On a serious level, I took three years of Spanish in high school and one year of ancient Greek in college. In both cases, I picked it up quite easily, then promptly forgot it all when I was done because I wasn’t using/thinking about it on a day to day basis.

Since then I’ve thought about trying to pick up Spanish again, or German, or Japanese, or Russian–I’m nothing if not ambitious!–but without a) the discipline of a class and b) the chance to use the language regularly, I know I’d lose it as quick as I got it.

I began with French as my mother tongue, but then English followed very closely after. So I guess I learned both languages well before the age of 11.

When I speak French or English, I speak them without any accent (other than a Canadian accent) so that epople are often surprised to learn English is not my first language.

But today, I earn nice money working as a simultaneous interpreter (English-French, French-English). This consists of sitting in a booth at a meeting or conference, listening to a speaker, and speaking the other language at the same time. You have to keep up with what is being said and not allow for more than a few seconds of lapse time.

I have no idea at all how my brain does it. It is like riding a bicycle or touch-typing. The minute you start to think about what you are doing you will screw up. With typing you just let the fingers and some mysterious part of your brain work together.

For some reason I do it much better if I close my eyes. And believe it or not, I have never received any formal training to become an interpreter, nor do I have a degree in translation.

At the age of 42, I decided to see how hard it was to learn a language since I had sort of fallen naturally into English and French. And I did not want anything easy like Spanish. So I took German.

Oh ja, Deutsch!!! They do not have their nouns divided up into masculine and feminine, nosiree Fritz! They have masculine feminine and neuter!

As you may know, the adjectives and the articles in French vary according to the gender of the noun. You say, “*Un * beau chien” but “une belle maison”.

Now then, nothing so simple for German, folks (or Volk). In the language of Schiller and Mozart, the article and the adjective vary not only according to gender but also according to the function of the noun in the sentence. It is a bit like the way English says “who” when it is the subject, but “whom” when it is the object.

However, German does this for every adjective and article.

A good man was there = **Ein guter ** Mann war dort
I saw a good man = Ich sah **einen guten ** Mann
I gave it to a good man = Ich habe es **einem gutem ** Mann gegeben.

Note how the article and the adjective change their endings in each case. And you thought French and Spanish were complicated!

So how did my adventure learning German work out? The answer is, surprisingly well. I have a theory as to why. I have heard it is much easier to learn a third or even fourth language than the second. I think I know why.

Our brains are programmed to assign the correct meaning to a word and keep it there. You were taught that that thing on hinges is a “door”. By keeping meanings and sounds clearly in order, you can speak and understand your native tongue.

But then, you try for a second language. Suddenly, you want your brain to understand that that thing is a “porte” or a “Tur”. Your brain immediately says, “Are you trying to screw me over? That there thing has been a “door” for the past 30 or 40 years, and now you tell me it isn’t?”

Once you speak a second language, though, your brain accepts that there are two different “sets” of sounds to convey reality. So if you now want it to accept that there is a third set, what the heck, why not, sez your brain. Anyhow, that is my theory.

Opinions or comments?

Just to clarify in case there are any budding linguists out there that may be scared by the thought of having to master many languages; many linguists only speak their native language and that’s it, or maybe just one other language. (I’m not suggesting that you don’t know the difference, I just don’t want anyone to get confused since it’s a common misconception that linguists know lots of languages.)

As for the OP, I don’t have an answer either. I did find that after studying language (in general) in college, my ability to pick up language increased a bit, but it’s still pretty shoddy.

This is indeed a fascinating phenomenon, and it’s one of several ways we can be sure that second language acquisition is, at least in part, a separate thing from acquiring one’s native language. All people - barring cases of particular neurological deficits - acquire their first language within a few years and by the end of their youth, people all have mastery similar to each other’s. Certainly there is some variation in verbal skills - some people are, for instance, more apt to speak in longer, more linguistically complex sentences, and some people are obviously more “articulate” than others (though I’m unaware of any rigorous definition of the term, hence the scare quotes). But still, the variation in ability with a first language is fairly small.

In contrast, people’s ability to acquire second languages varies enormously. Some people simply don’t seem to have much aptitude for it and never achieve real mastery - and there’s no correlation that I know of or have ever observed to either general intelligence or other linguistic abilities. On the other end, some people acquire perfect abilities with a second language. I used to know a woman, Alisa, who moved to the United States from Latvia in her early teens - well after the apparent period for first language acquisition. At home, she spoke Russian and (if memory serves) at least some Latvian; however, by the time I knew her several years later, she really had no discernible accent at all. Very, very occasionally I could hear a trace of something that might have been an accent when she was extremely tired, but even assuming that it was indeed an accent and not simply my own imagination, it was the sort of thing that I could only faintly hear and only if I listened for it. Everyone who met her - myself included - was shocked to learn her first language wasn’t English.

I myself have a bit of that, though I doubt I compare to Alisa; I had a class in Spanish phonetics (which was actually a mixture of the linguistic fields of phonetics and phonology and also a concerted effort to teach a proper accent to Spanish students) and my professor told me that I sounded like a native in a recording made as part of a project to improve our accents. Even though I’m sure he exaggerated a little, it’s true that I have considerably more ease at learning good foreign accents than other foreign language students I’ve known. A peculiar thing is that the ability doesn’t seem to extend at all into the area of doing accents in my own language, for which I have no particular talent. Learning a good accent in a foreign language doesn’t even seem to correlate in any particular way with general skill in it, as we’ve all met foreigners who are quite fluent in English but have heavy accents. What I’ve read about second language acquisition suggests that many people can achieve native-level abilities in a second language except in regard to accent, but that mastering a foreign accent perfectly, even given time and practice, is quite rare. Clearly, there are lots of language abilities that are not coupled very closely with one another, something that suggests a degree of separation within the brain between various language-related abilities.

And another thing I’ve observed is that many linguists seem to have a certain “linguist’s grasp” of quite a few foreign languages, but no real fluency in them. (Though as you say, not a few only speak their native language; an entire career can easily be made working within one language.) This sort of linguist’s ability comes from having studied the grammar of a language fairly closely without ever acquiring any significant amount of vocabulary or any fluency at speaking it. One might easily very thoroughly learn, say, all of the verb endings of regular and irregular verbs in Italian without ever practicing the language enough to come up with them in speech - particularly if one can’t think of a verb to attach them to! If you know a lot about grammar, and particularly if you know a related language whose grammar is similar, it’s easy to acquire those things but not have much ability at all to speak or understand a language.

Hmm. It won’t let me post this because it says I’ve posted a duplicate. Yet it doesn’t seem to be showing up, and an error popped up when I tried. So I’m adding some irrelevant, generally useless text to convince it that this one is different. Apologies in advance if I somehow manage to post this several times.

While I don’t have a wondrous talent for music, I am a fair guitar player, a decent singer and was a professional musician for 10 years. I suck at languages. The ability to correlate pitch with a syllable has been useful in my attempts to learn Chinese, but remembering the words, for instance, is blindingly difficult for me.

I’ve seen studies that suggest that learning multiple “birth” languages (before that all-important 10-12 birthday) makes it easier to learn others later. There was a young man in my Chinese class at college who was miles ahead of the rest of us. He was raised in Brazil–learned German, Portugese and Spanish from birth, learned English when he was 10 (had no accent). He said “Languages are just easy for me.” I wanted to strangle him. :slight_smile:

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything the rest of us can do to gain this advantage now that we’ve progressed into adulthood. :frowning: