Professor Ping Li, along with Penn State colleagues, believe that learning and practicing a second language can change your brain network, structurally and functionally. They studied 39 native English speakers’ brains for a six-week period, half of the participants were asked to learn Chinese vocabulary. Of the subjects learning the new vocabulary, those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary. MRI scans demonstrated that the brain network of the successful learners was better integrated. The findings are consistent with changes that occur in the brain as a result of learning a second language, no matter the age of the learner.
The University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab conducted a study focusing on whether an emotional connotation of the most commonly used words could reveal a preference for positivity and joy over sadness and cynicism. They decided to use 100,000 of the most frequently used words in the media, amongst the top ten most popular languages. Native speakers were asked to rank these words on a nine point emotional scale, with 1 being the most negative or saddest, 5 being neutral and 9 being the most positive or happiest. They were able to conclude that the most popular languages tend to prefer happier words than those with negative connotations. Researchers found that Spanish was the happiest, and English was amongst the top five. They believe this will pave the way for the development of powerful language-based tools for measuring emotion.
A group of linguists and evolutionary biologists from the Australia National University conducted a study which demonstrated that languages evolve at different speeds, depending on the size of the population that speaks them. They compared 20 different Polynesian languages, which shared a common ancestor, considered to be “sister languages”. The researchers decided to compare the languages with different population sizes and observe if there were any differences in the vocabulary. The results demonstrated that languages with larger populations gained new vocabulary faster than the languages with a smaller population size. More often the languages with a smaller population tended to lose vocabulary faster than those in a larger population, which is similar to the biological evolution. The researchers believe that they still need to continue looking at other languages in order to confirm these results, and assume that the general feature of language evolution.
Sean G. Roberts, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Evolutionary Anthropology and Mathematics in the Sciences in Nijmegen, along with other researchers have looked at a total of 3,750 languages from different linguistic families. They were able to find a correlation between humidity and tone pitch. The humidity allows the mucous membranes in the larynx to remain moist, making them more elastic. Due to this there is a wider range of tone pitches in regions with a higher humidity, meanwhile, languages with a more simpler tone are commonly found in drier regions. This can serve to explain why tonal languages, found in the Tropics, Subtropical Asia and Central Africa, are rarer in dry areas, such as Central Europe. The findings demonstrate that climate is able to determine the development of languages.
A study recently published in the journal Cognition, by Thomas Bak, Mariana Vega-Mendoza, and Antonella Sorace, demonstrated that learning a second language could improve a person’s mental agility, at any age. The study involved 200 students where the researchers assessed their mental alertness, such as the production of different words and concentration on certain sounds. There was a comparison made between first year students, who had just started to learn a language, and fourth year students, who were more proficient in the language. The results from the study demonstrated that students who learned a second language were better at switching their attention to filter information. The researchers believe that the study confirms the cognitive benefits of learning and language learning.
A study conducted by professor Krista Byers-Heinlein from Concordia University demonstrated how children who were exposed to a second language, after the age of three, were more likely to believe that an individual’s traits arise from experience, not something they are born with. The study included 48 children, between five and six years old, who were either monolingual, simultaneous bilingual (learned two languages at once) and sequential bilingual (learned one language and then another). The children were told different scenarios related to language learning and were asked follow up questions. The results demonstrated that the monolingual children were more likely to think of everything as being innate, meanwhile bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned through experiences. The bilingual children had different expectations than the monolinguals. The researchers hope that this finding can raise the possibility that second language education can help promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity.
The researcher Viorica Marian, of Northwestern University’s School of Communication, conducted a study in which volunteers were asked to perform word recognition exercises. The volunteers were monolingual and bilingual. Their blood flow was observed in order to measure how hard the brain was working during the tasks. According to Marian, the monolinguals had a harder time identifying the correct words because the bilingual brain is constantly choosing which language to use and which to ignore. The bilingual brain is better at inhibitory control, constantly filtering out irrelevant words, and in doing so, it provides the brain a built-in exercise.