The advances in brain imaging technology of the past thirty years or so have enabled researchers to investigate language related phenomena from a completely new angle. It is thanks to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among other techniques, that we now know where in the brain various processes take place and what structures are involved in a variety of tasks. MRI makes it possible to observe the human brain while we listen to, read or learn languages and it offers a description of general mechanisms governing our communicative behaviour.
But a general idea of what’s happening in the brain, and where, is only one side of the story. Just like faces, our brains differ from each other to a very high degree. For example, the size of different brain structures, the number of neurons used to perform certain functions, and the dynamics of neural activity vary from person to person. And, of course, such differences have consequences for our performance, for example, in the domain of language learning.
At some point or another, we have all noticed that some people are much better in learning foreign languages than others. Picking up (and remembering!) new words easily, being able to distinguish and imitate foreign sounds well, or figuring out complicated grammatical structures, are skills which researchers describe as language aptitude, or a particular knack for languages. The way in which language aptitude is represented in the brain is my main research topic. One way of investigating this is to look at differences between learners on a task in which they have to learn a set of new grammatical rules. The participants in our study were learning new grammatical rules while we collected functional MRI scans of their brains. These MRI scans show that what appears to make the process of grammar learning efficient is extra involvement of the right hemisphere, which is normally not specialised in language processing. Later on, in order to process the new rules proficiently, the left-hemisphere activations must be present. The sooner they occur, the better the learning outcome. This study is reported in an article soon to be published in a special issue of the journal Neuropsychologia devoted to neurobiological bases of language learning.
To understand language aptitude more fully, we also aim at investigating what is it about the brain structure of our most successful learners that makes them learn a new language so fast and efficient. Still quite a long way to go!