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How our brains cope with speaking more than one language

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I’m standing in line at my local bakery in Paris, apologizing to an incredibly confused shopkeeper. He’s just asked how many pastries I would like, and completely inadvertently, I responded in Mandarin instead of French. I’m equally baffled: I’m a dominant English speaker and haven’t used Mandarin properly in years. And yet, here in this most Parisian of settings, it somehow decided to reassert itself.

Multilinguals commonly juggle the languages they know with ease. But sometimes, accidental slip-ups can occur. And the science behind why this happens is revealing surprising insights into how our brains work.

Research into how multilingual people juggle more than one language in their minds is complex and sometimes counterintuitive. It turns out that when a multilingual person wants to speak, the languages they know can be active at the same time, even if only one gets used. These languages can interfere with each other, for example intruding into speech just when you don’t expect them. And interference can manifest itself not just in vocabulary slip-ups, but even on the level of grammar or accent.

“From research, we know that as a bilingual or multilingual, whenever you’re speaking, both languages or all the languages that you know are activated,” says Mathieu Declerck, a senior research fellow at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels. “For example, when you want to say ‘dog’ as a French-English bilingual, not just ‘dog’ is activated, but also its translation equivalent, so ‘chien’ is also activated.”

As such, the speaker needs to have some sort of language control process. If you think about it, the ability of bilingual and multilingual speakers to separate the languages they have learned is remarkable. How they do this is commonly explained through the concept of inhibition – a suppression of the non-relevant languages. When a bilingual volunteer is asked to name a color shown on a screen in one language and then the next colour in their other language, it is possible to measure spikes in electrical activity in parts of the brain that deal with language and attentional awareness.

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Click the link below for article:

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220719-how-speaking-other-languages-changes-your-brain?utm_source=pocket_discover

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