How Our Native Language Shapes Our Brain Wiring

Summary: Our native language may affect the way in which our brains are wired and underlie the way we think, a new study reports. Using neuroimaging to analyze neural connectivity in native German and native Arabic speakers, researchers found stronger connectivity between the right and left hemispheres in Arabic speakers, and stronger connectivity in the left hemisphere language area in German speakers.

Source: Max Planck Institute

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have found evidence that the language we speak shapes the connectivity in our brains that may underlie the way we think.

With the help of magnetic resonance tomography, they looked deep into the brains of native German and Arabic speakers and discovered differences in the wiring of the language regions in the brain.

Xuehu Wei, who is a doctoral student in the research team around Alfred Anwander and Angela Friederici, compared the brain scans of 94 native speakers of two very different languages and showed that the language we grow up with modulates the wiring in the brain. Two groups of native speakers of German and Arabic respectively were scanned in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.

The high-resolution images not only show the anatomy of the brain, but also allow to derive the connectivity between the brain areas using a technique called diffusion-weighted imaging. The data showed that the axonal white matter connections of the language network adapt to the processing demands and difficulties of the mother tongue.

This shows a brain scan from the study
The scientists analyzed the structural language connectome of native German and Arabic speakers. Credit: MPI CBS

“Arabic native speakers showed a stronger connectivity between the left and right hemispheres than German native speakers,” explained Alfred Anwander, last author of the study that was recently published in the journal NeuroImage. “This strengthening was also found between semantic language regions and may be related to the relatively complex semantic and phonological processing in Arabic.”

As the researchers discovered, native German speakers showed stronger connectivity in the left hemisphere language network. They argue that their findings may be related to the complex syntactic processing of German, which is due to the free word order and greater dependency distance of sentence elements.

“Brain connectivity is modulated by learning and the environment during childhood, which influences processing and cognitive reasoning in the adult brain. Our study provides new insights how the brain adapts to cognitive demands, that is, the structural language connectome is shaped by the mother tongue,” said Anwander.

This is one of the first studies to document differences between the brains of people who grew up with different native languages and could give researchers a way to understand cross-cultural processing differences in the brain. In a next study, the research team will analyze longitudinal structural changes in the brains of Arabic-speaking adults as they learn German over six months.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Max Planck Institute
Contact: Press Office – Max Plank Institute
Image: The image is credited to MPI CBS

Original Research: Open access.
Native language differences in the structural connectome of the human brain” by Xuehu Wei et al. NeuroImage


Native language differences in the structural connectome of the human brain

Is the neuroanatomy of the language structural connectome modulated by the life-long experience of speaking a specific language?

The current study compared the brain white matter connections of the language and speech production network in a large cohort of 94 native speakers of two very different languages: an Indo-European morphosyntactically complex language (German) and a Semitic root-based language (Arabic). Using high-resolution diffusion-weighted MRI and tractography-based network statistics of the language connectome, we demonstrated that German native speakers exhibited stronger connectivity in an intra-hemispheric frontal to parietal/temporal dorsal language network, known to be associated with complex syntax processing.

In comparison, Arabic native speakers showed stronger connectivity in the connections between semantic language regions, including the left temporo-parietal network, and stronger inter-hemispheric connections via the posterior corpus callosum connecting bilateral superior temporal and inferior parietal regions.

The current study suggests that the structural language connectome develops and is modulated by environmental factors such as the characteristic processing demands of the native language.

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  1. The idea that mother-tongue differentiates cognitive modules is understandable, but the findings are not directly related to language. There are many culture-related attributes that could be the root-cause, but probably the most “correct” way to characterize the difference is simply the cultural difference. The future studies should focus on different elements in the culture itself and try to distinguish the exact cultural attributes that provides this cognitive difference. Language, most probably, will be a big factor – but not necessarily the only or even the biggest one.

  2. But how do they know that what the found is not actually the difference between monolinguals (German speakers in Germany) and bilinguals (Arabic speakers living in Germany)? Unless they gathered existing data from or run some of the scans in Arab speaking countries, the only way to test their conclusion is running the experiment in a third country (where both German and Arabic speakers are non native languages).

  3. This is one theory I developed early this week – I sustained a TBI from a motor vehicle accident and after a year of learning the simple new ‘equations’ to maintain cognitive processes- Ive been noticing a really unusual exponential-like skyrocket of ability within cognition-
    one thing still do struggle with however is language- the simple translation from thought to speech- ‘how do I get this beautifully complex painting that has so much interpretational meaning into the mind of the person im communicating’

    And the more it progressed, I finally gave it a minute to think about , and what i realized is, first by recognizing where my speech ‘pauses’ occurred the most, patterns of deficits or influences, analysis of the person[s] receiving communications… our brains are severely dependent on language – and experience- and further- mechanical neuroanatomy of the auditory pathways-
    but just limiting brain wiring to language- I know I have struggled the most to get words out when there are increasing complex factors that enter into a single moment throughout its entirety-
    what does this person percieve this word to be, vs what I see? what if they misinterpret in a way that is entirely dependent?
    how does history of the formations of language evolve with each language and with each new negation leaning the language and from there how to now explain from there- I could go on… but this was a momentary thought

  4. This research is problematic as there are so many possible factors other than language to rule out, but I do believe memetics is as important a hereditary factor as genetics or epigenetics.

  5. Sanskrit is the most complex and complicated language. (as much as you could write a whole paragraph which could mean different things, readable from both left to right and right to left). Explains why, although technologically not that advanced, civilization wise the Indian ancient Sanskrit gurus were the most intelligent people on earth, and gave wisdom and philosophies still relevant.

  6. Hmmm. I’m sure the study is sound, but not yet convinced that the result is solid. Some language dependent differences are to be expected, but exactly what differences is harder to judge. Would need a replication with native speakers of the same languages, and contrast with native speakers of different languages.

  7. This is one of those things I’ve always assumed but never had any evidence for. I think that it could also explain why certain behaviors are dominant and aptitudes other than them being taught or focused on culturally.

    If your language is like an algorithm you’re going to think like an algorithm if your language is just expressive and nothing is specific then that’s what you’re going to be

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