A study to analyze how the brain processes multiple languages and how their similarities or differences influence this process has been undertaken by scientists at the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Basque Country.
"Language is not something that circulates out there somewhere; although we have ways of representing it, language exists in the brain," says Doctor Itziar Laka, who is leading the research team.
The scientists recently began the BRAINGLOT project in collaboration with numerous research groups, under the co-ordinating leadership of Dr. Nuria Sebastian of the University of Barcelona.
The research project focuses on bilingualism, and links neurosciences and linguistics.
"(Within this), we respond to the questions most concerning linguistics: How are languages organised in the brain? Does there exist some interchange of influences between them? Is it important that the languages are similar or not? When is a second language learnt?" say the researchers.
Dr. Laka said that despite much research on acquisition of languages amongst monolingual persons, scientist still had to determine how do babies realise that they were in a bilingual environment, and the clues for them in discovering that.
She said that scientists also needed to discover how is discrimination between languages produced in infants.
"We have just begun research in this line and working with children requires taking it slowly, the prior preparation period being very long", said Laka.
"For the moment, work is being carried out with small children of four, five and six and the aim is to undertake the study with even younger children. In fact, we start to be fluent in a language before birth; if we wait for a child to say its first words in order to study the acquisition process for or the initiation of a language, it is too late," she added. .
Dr. Laka revealed that the research group was preparing specific material based on their investigations in the filed of phonology, which they would use to study how do babies understand that they are hearing the same syllable when two syllables having the same sound are not exactly the same.
According to her, the team aims to find out what is "the same" or "different" for a baby by means of an experimental methodology.
The researchers are also analysing the effect of age on the bilingual brain with respect to phonology, vocabulary and grammar, amongst other phenomena.
"To date, we know the age of acquisition of a language influences the phonology, given that those learning a language at infancy do not have an accent when speaking; those learning at an adult age may or may not," said Laka.
Similarly, she added, it was well known that the age of acquisition of a language did not have an influence on vocabulary.
"As regards grammar, our research shows that it should not be understood as a whole but that inside it there are some phenomena that do show effects of acquisition and others that do not," she said.
The researchers at the University of Barcelona who have collaborated with the UPV/EHU team have concluded that highly proficient bilingual individuals and those less competent in one of their two languages do not employ the same mechanisms to change from one to the other.
They also say that having to control two languages with frequency trains the brain, and that this training may slow down the loss of certain cognitive features that appear with ageing.
"We are investigating to see if these effects found amongst bilingual persons who speak Catalan and Spanish are replicated in those who speak Basque and Spanish, in order to judge if the distance between languages has any effect," says Dr. Laka.