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Study sheds light on how brain processes languages

late brain scan
The brain scan of someone who became bilingual at an adult age; each color represents the different language   
January 23, 1998
Web posted at: 12:49 p.m. EST (1749 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Have you ever wondered why it seems harder to learn a second language as an adult than it does to learn one at an earlier age?

Researchers at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center say our brains may process language learning differently as we grow older. While the scientists still have much to learn, brain surgeons already are benefiting from their work.

Watch Ann Kellan's report as seen on CNN
icon 2 min. 15 sec. VXtreme video

The Sloan Kettering researchers used a machine called a Functional MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, to map the language centers in the brains of 12 volunteers who speak more than one language.

Some of the volunteers learned a second language as children. Others learned a second language while in high school or college.

early brain scan Hirsch explains the brain scan of someone who became bilingual at an early age
icon 94K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

In those who learned additional languages early in life, the study indicates the brain processed the languages in the same area. For example, if a yellow area represents the Croatian language, and a red area represents the English language, the study found a large orange area showing an overlap in the way the brain merges the language capabilities.

In people who learned additional languages later in life, the study indicates the brain used a separate area to process the new language.

"It must be when you learn a second language (later in life) ... brains find it more efficient to use a different area of the brain which is dedicated to the second language," said Karl Kim, who designed the study and tested it on himself. Kim speaks Korean and English.

Researchers still have much to learn about how the brain processes languages, but Joy Hirsch, of Sloan Kettering, says the study clearly shows the brain processes the information differently depending on the learner's age. (icon 85K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The language study is already changing the way brain surgeons operate.

Hirsch tests volunteers at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center   

Before operating, surgeons can now do a Functional MRI to locate the patient's language centers in the brain.

"After that is done, we then have a very good idea at the time of surgery where speech production is governed inside the brain," said Dr. Mark Souweidane, a neurosurgeon.

The map helps surgeons avoid language centers during operations to remove tumors, or other obstructions, from the brain.

Scientists still don't know the best time to learn a second language. They hope more studies will answer that question.

Is learning another language easier for children?
video icon 638K/15 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

But parents seem to believe their children have an easier time learning a second language.

"It's hard to learn English after 30 years," Alexander Raeva, of Bulgaria, told CNN.

"Especially to start with," added his wife, Lilia. "I had to translate everything in my mind."

Their daughter, Mila, began learning English when she was 3. She now helps instruct other students.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.


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