Sunday, May 18, 2008

Programming the brain

Two articles from the Daily Telegraph shed some light on how our brains are programmed for language.

In the first, researchers at Bristol University have found that babies exposed to foreign languages when young, show more alertness to different sounds of languages in later life. So, children who have been exposed to the sounds of French before they are one, will be able to distinguish between a wider range of phonemes at a later stage, while children who aren't can't hear any difference.

This is linked to what is called phonemic expansion and contraction: children are "born universal" and can produce and discern any sound of any world language when young, but as they become more acclimatised to their native language, their range of phonemes contracts and they lose the ability to pick out the other sounds. What this research suggests is that exposure to other languages actually helps programme the brain to be more flexible and alert to other sounds, perhaps making it easier to learn languages in later life.

The second piece of research is a weird experiment in which powerful magnets are used to disrupt a reporter's speech. By finding Broca's area, a part of the brain that is responsible for aspects of language, scientists can "disable" speech. Strangely, the reporter could still sing but couldn't speak. Read on for more about what this tells us about our brains and language.

Useful for:
ENGA1 (next year's AS spec) - Language Development

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