Study sheds light on how brain processes languages
January 23, 1998
The brain scan of someone who became bilingual at an
adult age; each color represents the different language
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.
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
Hirsch explains the brain scan of someone who became
bilingual at an early age
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
"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.
( 85K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The language study is already changing the way brain surgeons
Hirsch tests volunteers at the Sloan Kettering Cancer
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
Scientists still don't know the best time to learn a second
language. They hope more studies will answer that question.
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.