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How do bilinguals and monolinguals learn languages?

Our brain: Broca's area in red

The results of neuroimaging  

The neural organization of our brain is partially influenced by experiences such as those experienced in early childhood like music education, learning to read, age of language exposure, etc..

Thanks to today's technique of
neuroimaging we can identify the various areas of brain responsible for processing language.

The neuroimaging represents an independent form of test. We know, for instance, that Broca's area (left inferior frontal gyrus) is responsible for language functions, but the neuroimaging has allowed us to identify sub-regions respectively in charge of the phonology, semantics and syntax. And much more! The neuroimaging has also allowed us to determine that Broca's area also acts not purely linguistic, but has also other functions such as a cognitive control (Abutalebi, 2008).

Initially it was thought that in Broca's area were only localized functions related to the mother tongue (L1), that is to say the language acquired implicitly in the earliest years of life. It was believed instead that languages learned in adulthood (L2) were not in the same brain system.

Neuroimaging and late bilinguals

Tests carried out thanks to neuroimaging have revolutionized this assumption by showing that in late bilinguals, at least at grammatical level, L1 and L2 develop via the same neural structures.

There’s one difference, as one might guess, and this is represented by the extension of neural connections concerned which is greater when using L2. Therefore, the less you master a language, the more difficult will it be for the brain to use it.

Interestingly enough, studies proved that in early bilinguals the neural activity extension is the same for L1 and L2.

While we have seen that for L2 grammar acquisition the learning age of the latter is crucial, what the lexicon concerns it seems that the predominant role is played by the proficiency in L2. In fact, in the early stages of L2 learning the memorization of words is constantly referring to L1. This dependence gradually decreases the better the learner masters L2. When L1 and L2 reach a comparable level, the neuroimaging showed neural activity similar to that of monolinguals. Exposure to the language and proficiency affect the test results, and, as I mentioned, the acquisition age of L2 does not seem to have a predominant role in relation to the lexicon.

In addition, the neuronal activity recorded in cases of equivalent levels in two languages ​​is the same for both activities, i.e. the recovery of lexicon in L1 and in L2, suggesting that in order to perform identical tasks in the two languages ​​we make use of the same neural structure, irrespective of the differences between the two languages in question.

In this case there will be a decrease (up to the disappearance in the case of fluent L2) of the activity of the left prefrontal, instead engaged in the production of L2 to lower levels of knowledge.

The greater extent of neural activity is indicative of greater cognitive effort required to use a weaker language by the speaker, which instead decreases as they acquired a deeper knowledge of the language itself. Grosjean (1992) demonstrates the need of bilinguals to inhibit a language to express themselves without interference from the other language. Obviously, for a bilingual with high proficiency in both languages ​​the inhibition effort is less than for a late bilingual whose knowledge of the two languages ​​is not balanced, and for whom lexical recovery needs more time.

Neuroimaging and early and balanced bilinguals

To answer the eternal question about the unitary or dual structure of bilingual brain, a
study on early and balanced bilinguals (i.e. exposed to two languages from their early childhood and ​​with equal mastery of both ones) comparing to monolinguals with comparable knowledge of each language concerned​​ (Petitto et al., 2008).

The two languages ​​were English and Spanish and it is important to underline it because they are languages ​​with different morphosyntactic structures due to their Germanic and Latin roots, respectively.

The study is to support the theory, now the most accredited one, that bilinguals develop their two languages ​​with two different systems, although it is not possible to neglect the interactions between these systems (Doepke, 2000).


It is worth going into details of the methodology used in this study to better understand how we have come to the conclusion of the existence of two separate systems in early and balanced bilinguals.

Monolinguals and bilinguals have been asked to analyze some English sentences that differed in their degree of difficulty on the basis of the linguistic structure proper to English.

Furthermore, bilinguals were tested on the same statements in Spanish. It must be realized, however, that what can be perceived as difficult by an English speaker being a rarer form in English, does not necessarily prove to be difficult for a Spanish speaker, whose language allows different morphosyntactic structures.


The neural activity recorded for the elaboration of English sentences was the same in both monolinguals and in bilinguals. The neural activity recorded in bilinguals showed differences depending on whether the statement elaborated was in English or Spanish.

These are two different processing schemes for each language; the response of bilingual brain, however, is comparable to the response of monolingual brain for each of the respective languages.

This discovery goes to confute some theories according to which early bilingual children would have the risk of persistent linguistic confusion over the lifetime. And that’s not everything. It also represents an evidence confirming the existence of two separate systems: in the bilingual brain exists a functional separation on the basis of the linguistic characteristics of the languages ​​concerned.

Similar activities have also been observed in the bilingual brain involved in processing two languages, being the observed differences,  however,  manifested in terms of variation intensity of the necessary neural brain.

A structural study of the bilingual brain also showed a widening of the left inferior parietal cortex compared to monolinguals, in support of the neural organization emerging from the study. These results together confirm that early bilingual exposure and extended throughout lifespan has an impact on the organization and neural processing capabilities of human language.


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