I’m trying to be patient, but J’en ai marre!! — I’m fed up!! At least at times, that’s how I feel. There’s the grammar, the pronunciation and the vocabulary; there’s the masculine and the feminine words, which coincidentally have sometimes different pronunciations for the same exact word; there’s the Familiar versus the Formal. Then, there’s the countless verb conjugations with Past Tense, Future Tense, Subjective Tense, Present Tense; Am I starting to seem a bit tense? And let’s not even get started on the mistakes I’ve made in the slightest pronunciation that took me from saying “I was able to” into declaring that “I have head lice.”
Learning a second language is hardly a simple task for most. I’m no exception, but I’m bent on relinquishing my California accent and embracing French fluency. So determined, in fact, that I spend four days a week in French classes. I read French journals and switch on the French subtitles for my DVDs. I study. I study a lot. As if that weren’t enough, I’ve committed this past year to living in France and have even taken on a French boyfriend with beaucoup de patience!
I’m starving for comprehension and anxiously wishing that a day will arrive when my brain suddenly “clicks” and magically understands everything French (including why the women really never do get fat). I don’t know if that day will ever arrive, which makes me wonder, did I miss my window of opportunity? Is it all in my head? And more so, what is it about a second language that is so different from learning our maternal language?
With advancing technology, scientists are now able to take a closer look into the happenings of our brains and study specific areas of the cortex in detail. Similarly, human language has always intrigued scientists with the way our brain represents the key language areas. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans have become the most popular for studying bilingualism and brain processing. fMRI not only scans three-dimensional portraits of brain anatomy, but it goes beyond the call of duty: Through machines using powerful magnets and complex mathematical analysis that are as foreign in comprehension to me as French, the fMRI detects subtle changes in blood flow to specific parts of the brain. It is able to show which groups of neurons are firing at any given time inside the head and then spits out color-coded images of one’s brain activity resembling the weather Doppler radar maps.
The PET scanner, on the other hand, is a bit more invasive, as it detects radioactive material that is injected or inhaled into a person’s bloodstream to produce an image of the brain. The radioactive oxygen is then transported with the blood to the brain regions that are in need of energy. This happens when we think or perform a mental task such as speaking, listening, problem solving and so on. The scanner records the changes in density of radioactive particles in the brain during these certain tasks and produces a representing image. Both of these scanning devices are quite fantastic because they allow researchers to examine not just structure of the brain, but activity, as well.
Perhaps age of first learning a second language isn’t as importance as once thought.
A research study was completed using a fMRI looking at Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (the language areas of the brain used for comprehension and speaking) in 12 volunteers who speak more than one language. Broca’s area, in the left frontal lobe of the brain, is involved mainly in the production of spoken and written language, along with language processing and comprehension. Wernicke’s area is found in the temporal lobe and is more so associated with the understanding of language. Half of the 12 subjects in the study had learned a second language in childhood while others, like moi, didn’t start until post-puberty.
For the early bilinguals, their brains showed processing of their maternal language and the second language in large, overlapping regions of the brain language areas, especially in Broca’s area. Those individuals, however, who learned a language later in life were shown to use separate regions of the brain to process.
In the latter, Wernicke’s area became activated, but the fMRI imaging showed non-overlapping and even adjacent regions of Broca’s area working.
This finding suggests that language representation in Wernicke’s area is less affected by the age of initial exposure to a language. It also submits to what scientists once believed to be true, that different languages were represented in different areas of the brain, though it seems to only be true for late bilinguals.