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How are languages stored in the brain?!

language acquisition languages May 10, 2022

Over the last couple of decades there has been a fundamental change in how we understand the brain, particularly in relation to how information is stored in the brain.

In the 1980s the brain was conceptualised like a chest of drawers. Intuitively this is very convincing - the brain has special areas (the drawers) to store different kinds of information or to carry out different functions.

However there are a couple of difficulties with this, especially in relation to languages. What happens when the languages drawer becomes full? Are the languages pushing against each other causing a weakness? Which language will be pushed out of the drawer? A whole one or some of each language?

Viewing the brain in this way does not accommodate languages very well.

As scientists have learnt more about the brain, the conceptualisation has now shifted to viewing the brain like a giant network or even a set of networks, with different areas jointly producing the activity required. With a network the brain is not limited or prone to weakness by becoming too full as with the chest of drawers concept.

If you add another thread to a net, it becomes stronger not weaker. Adding languages in fact stabilises the brain's language system, which might use a number of different networks, making it more robust, rather than pushing a different language to the side as with the chest of drawers. The process of learning languages activates several different networks in the brain which is why it’s a full on brain workout and in turn strengthens the brain. 

Dr Thomas Bak compares learning languages like going to a gym. An activity like Sudoku is like going to the gym and using one machine to repeat one movement. Learning a language, on the other hand, is like using 20 different machines which require lots of different movements. That’s because language learning engages a number of different parts of the brain and boosts the connectivity between these different areas. In turn, this improved connectivity improves your higher mental function.

Fascinating hey, and another incredible reason to learn languages!

To find out more, listen to this episode of Cate's podcast 'The Language Revolution' featuring neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Bak.

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