If you read a sentence (such as this one) about kicking a ball, neurons related to the motor function of your leg and foot will be activated in your brain. Similarly, if you talk about cooking garlic, neurons associated with smelling will fire up. Since it is almost impossible to do or think about anything without using language — whether this entails an internal talk-through by your inner voice or following a set of written instructions — language pervades our brains and our lives like no other skill.
For more than a century, it’s been established that our capacity to use language is usually located in the left hemisphere of the brain, specifically in two areas: Broca’s area (associated with speech production and articulation) and Wernicke’s area (associated with comprehension). Damage to either of these, caused by a stroke or other injury, can lead to language and speech problems or aphasia, a loss of language.
In the past decade, however, neurologists have discovered it’s not that simple: language is not restricted to two areas of the brain or even just to one side, and the brain itself can grow when we learn new languages.
Stars who speak other languages –
Bradley Cooper speaks fluent French, which he learned as a student attending Georgetown and then spending six months in France. The Internet loves it when he conducts interviews in the language.
NBA star Kobe Bryant grew up in Italy, where his father was a player. He can still speak the language.
Renee Zellweger’s father is from Switzerland, and she knows how to speak German.
Leonardo DiCaprio grew up in Los Angeles but his mother is German. He has family in Germany as well and is capable of a bit of Deutsch.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt loves French culture and knows how to communicate in the language.
Though raised in London, singer Rita Ora was born in Kosovo and has Albanian heritage.
Jack Black has taught himself both French and Spanish. One thing that helps: watching films in their original languages.
While visiting an audience at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on Thursday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spent 30 minutes speaking in Chinese — a language he’s been studying for several years. He’s not the only well-known person who’s fluent in something besides English.
Sandra Bullock was born in Virginia but raised in Germany, the homeland of her opera-singer mother. She’s fluent in German.
The Boston-born, Maryland-raised Edward Norton spent some time in Japan after graduating from Yale. He worked for a foundation created by his grandfather, real-estate developer James Rouse. He says his Japanese is rusty but he can still speak it.
“Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester is a capable French speaker, and broke out a few phrases in an interview.
Oscar winner Natalie Portman was born in Israel and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and her native land. She can speak a number of languages, including Hebrew, German and French.
“The Ballad of Jack and Rose” actress Camilla Belle grew up in a bilingual household, thanks to her Brazilian mother, and can speak fluent Portuguese.
Ben Affleck learned Spanish while living in Mexico and still draws upon the language, as he did when being interviewed about “Argo.”
More recent findings show that words are associated with different regions of the brain according to their subject or meaning. Neurologists aiming to make a three-dimensional atlas of words in the brain scanned the brains of people while they listened to several hours of radio. Different words triggered different parts of the brain, and the results show a broad agreement on which brain regions are associated with which word meanings — although just a handful of people were scanned for the study. Those taking part were all native English speakers listening to English. The next step will be to see where meaning is located for people listening in other languages — previous research suggests words of the same meaning in different languages cluster together in the same region — and for bilinguals.
Bilingual people seem to have different neural pathways for their two languages, and both are active when either language is used. As a result, bilinguals are continuously suppressing one of their languages — subconsciously — in order to focus and process the relevant one.
The first evidence for this came out of an experiment in 1999, in which English–Russian bilinguals were asked to manipulate objects on a table. In Russian, they were told to “put the stamp below the cross”. But the Russian word for stamp is “marka”, which sounds similar to “marker”, and eye-tracking revealed that the bilinguals looked back and forth between the marker pen and the stamp on the table before selecting the stamp.
And it seems the different neural patterns of a language are imprinted in our brains for ever, even if we don’t speak it after we’ve learned it. Scans of Canadian children who had been adopted from China as preverbal babies showed neural recognition of Chinese vowels years later, even though they didn’t speak a word of Chinese.
So whether we “lose” a language through not speaking it or through aphasia, it may still be there in our minds, which raises the prospect of using technology to untangle the brain’s intimate nests of words, thoughts and ideas, even in people who can’t physically speak. Neurologists are already having some success: one device can eavesdrop on your inner voice as you read in your head, another lets you control a cursor with your mind, while another even allows for remote control of another person’s movements through brain-to-brain contact over the internet, bypassing the need for language altogether.
For some people, such as those with locked-in syndrome or motor neurone disease, bypassing speech problems to access and retrieve their mind’s language directly would be truly transformative.
This article first appeared on Mosaic and stems from the longer feature: Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit.
Copyright 2015 The Wellcome Trust. Some rights reserved.