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Bilingual brains handle third language like natives

A bilingual brain is quickly able to handle a third language with the same neural mechanisms it uses for its native languages – putting it a step ahead of a monolingual brain, a new study has found.

Bilinguals process their L3 in the same way they process their L1, even at low proficiency. Monolinguals only develop this ability when they reach a high proficiency in another language.

Michael T. Ullman, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Centre and the study’s author, said, ‘The difference is seen in language learners’ brain patterns. When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language.’

Two groups – bilinguals and monolinguals – were taught Brocanto2, an artificial language composed of fourteen words and limited grammar rules, over the course of one week. The use of an artificial language allowed researchers to control the amount of exposure the participants would get.

Participants completed a series of comprehension and practice tests, and their electrical brain activity was monitored twice, early and later in the training, while reading grammatically correct and incorrect sentences in Brocanto2.

Bilinguals developed comprehension and production skills faster than monolinguals, but overall behavioural data did not highlight a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

But brains don’t lie. Analysis of bilinguals showed a ‘P600’ brainwave pattern commonly associated with native language syntactic processing while reading sentences in Brocanto2 far earlier than monolinguals did.

The fact that the brainwave pattern came later for monolinguals, whose brains also activated additional processing resources, indicates that it may have actually been easier and quicker for bilinguals to learn Brocanto2.