In order to understand how we become fluent in a language and to better comprehend bilingualism, the La Mente Bilingüe (“the bilingual brain”) research team at the Faculty of Arts of the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU analysed the acquisition process for languages. As Doctor Itziar Laka, Director of the team, explained, “language is not something that circulates out there somewhere; although we have ways of representing it, language exists in the brain”.
In October 2007 they began the BRAINGLOT project, focusing on bilingualism, in collaboration with numerous research teams and under the coordinating leadership of Dr. Nuria Sebastián from the University of Barcelona. This project links neurosciences and linguistics and, 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?”
Acquisition of language
Despite much research on acquisition of languages amongst monolingual persons, scientists still have to ask themselves basic questions about bilingual acquisition: How do babies realise that they are in a bilingual environment? What are the clues for them in discovering this? 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”, explained Ms 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”.
The acquisition of languages amongst bilingual persons is a theme that is as complex as it is mysterious “For example, if we analyse two syllables that sound the same with a machine that measures sound frequencies, we will see that they are not exactly the same; so, how does the baby know it is hearing the same syllable? What is – for him or her – “the same” or “different”? The Mente Bilingüe team aims to respond to these questions by means of an experimental methodology and, to this end, the researchers are preparing specific material based on their investigations in the field of phonology.
Different ways of processing the language
“We do not know how bilingual persons represent and manage their languages and it is in the monolingual situation that we understand the processing mechanisms better - bilingualism being much less understood”, explained Ms Laka. As regards the structure of the language, the order of words is a good example for studying bilingualism. “Basque has a free order of words, but something we linguists call neutral or canonical order exists, i.e. that which requires less effort from the brain”, she explained.
According to the terminology of linguistic typology, Basque is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language, and Spanish or English are, on the other hand, SVO type. In the Mente Bilingüe team we want to find answers to questions such as: “For those persons whose mother language is Spanish and then learn Basque after the age of five, which of these typologies or word orders do they use in language processing? Do they use the same mechanisms for processing word order as do native Basque speakers who have subsequently learnt Spanish?”
The Mente Bilingüe researchers employ two methodologies, amongst others, to investigate the order of words: one analysed the behaviour of word order processing and the other the electrophysiology involved in the processing (the electric signals produced in the brain). This last technique is known as ERP (Evoked Response Potential). In the behavioural methodology the experimental individuals were sat in front of the computers of the Elebilab laboratory at the Faculty of Arts.
Either written or auditory cues were provided by the computers with sentences of various structures and the time measured for the individuals to read/listen and respond to the prompts. “For example, the brain needs much less time for processing the Basque sentence, ‘otsoak ardiak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep) than to understand ‘ardiak otsoak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep), although both are grammatically correct”.
The ERP technique is useful for analysing how we process the language. The subjects wear a cap fitted with 60 electrodes, with the aim of measuring the electricity generated by the brain. “This is very valuable information for us as it enables us to measure with precision the effort made by the brain given certain structures”, Dr Laka explained. The first research work undertaken in the Basque Country using the ERP technique was published in 2006 by the member of Mente Bilingüe, Mr Kepa Erdozia.
Apart from questions of syntactic processing, they 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”, explained Ms Laka. In the same way, it is well known that the age of acquisition of a language does 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 added.
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. Also, the fact of having to control two languages with frequency trains the brain and 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”, states Dr. Laka.
For scientists this is of great interest – analysing and comparing two bilingual populations who share one of their two languages. Moreover, Catalan and Spanish are very similar syntactically, while Basque and Spanish are highly dissimilar in this respect. As regards phonology, the reverse is the case, Spanish differs more from Catalan than it does from Basque. Thanks to this, researchers can better distinguish the effects in the brain that distance has between languages.