Tag Archives: neurolinguistics

Dementia and language loss: what we know and what we don’t know

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in London or Los Angeles, in rural India or in urban Japan — this disease steals lives, it wrecks families, it breaks hearts,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron this week at the G8 Dementia Summit.

This is the biggest international summit to address the issue of dementia.

While world leaders and thinkers pledged to identify a cure or a disease-modifying therapy for the disease by 2025, linguist Alison Wray has been thinking about how to address the social repercussions of the disease.

Wray is a professor of linguistics at the Center for Language and Communication at Cardiff University in Wales, where she’s been researching dementia through the prism of language.

One of the enormous challenges with the disease is language loss. Dementia patients forget words and phrases and it can often make communication difficult and strained between a patient and his or her family.

Her work involves looking at how that breakdown of language strains the communication between dementia patients and their caregivers, and how to develop ways to ease that strain.

One key to alleviate the breakdown in communcation, according to Wray, may be as simple as looking at how other cultures around the world deal with language loss and dementia.

“In Western society, we view our older people in certain ways and we are frightened of dementia,” said Wray. “In other cultures in the world, they don’t necessarily see dementia as such a huge problem. They don’t make it into some kind of monster which is very frightening. It’s simply something that you deal with.”

Wray said some studies show that being multilingual may slow down the symptoms of dementia.

“When you’re used to using more than one language, you have several ways to express the same idea, therefore it gives you more routes to get around an obstacle that might come up,” said Wray.

However, she also pointed to conflicting research that shows there is no difference between monolingual and bilingual dementia patients.

All this is to say that more research is needed and this G8 Dementia Summit is just the beginning.

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The Bimusical Brain

We all think of ourselves as multitaskers. But the ultimate American multitaskers may be the children of foreign-born parents.

Every day, these hyphenated Americans swing back and forth between cultures—in the food they eat, the languages they speak, and the music they listen to.

Take Jason Vinoles. He grew up in New York City, the son of Argentine immigrant parents. Like a lot of children of immigrants, he spoke two languages with his family.

Jason Vinoles (photo: Audrey Quinn)

“I’d be on the phone with my parents and I’ll just switch back and forth,” says Vinoles. “If I can’t think of the word right away in Spanish, I’ll say it in English, but then keep on going with the conversation.”

Vinoles’ family would also switch back and forth between other things American and Argentine: sports team loyalties, cuisines and musical styles. His mom was a big fan of the Beatles.

“Any time a Beatles song would come on the radio on the oldies stations, she’d come grab me and make me dance,” says Vinoles.

The same kitchen floor dance party would also include more traditional Latino music, like the popular Mexican song, Cielito Lindo.

They’d also dance along to Madonna, followed right after by some tango.

A new study out of the Northwestern University focuses on this ‘bimusicality.’ The author, Patrick Wong, specializes in how the brain processes sound.

Wong suspected that people who grew up listening to both the Beatles and tango might develop differently from people who grew up listening to just Western music or just Latin music.

Wong recruited people who grew up listening primarily to Western popular music. And then he selected another group of people– Indian Americans– who grew up listening to both Western music and the traditional music of India.

Wong had his subjects use a dial to indicate the amount of tension they felt in the music.

People tend to report that foreign music has more tension. But the people who grew up with both Western and Indian music felt low degrees of tension with both types of music. They were equally at home listening to either genre.

Wong called these people ‘bimusicals.’

The study participants listened to the music inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, so that Wong could track their brain activity.

“If you are bimusical, you tend to engage a larger network of the brain when you listen to the two kinds of music,” says Wong.

He concluded that people who had grown up with both Indian and Western music had a more elaborate brain system for listening than those who grew up with just Western music.

Wong’s bimusicals also engaged more areas of their brain when listening to music. He says bimusicals looped in not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also its emotional region.

That led Wong to hypothesize that bimusicals may need to engage the emotional part of the brain to differentiate the two types of music.

Wong isn’t saying that only bimusical people experience music emotionally. We all do that. It’s more that bimusicals may tap into that region of the brain in order to toggle between multiple musical styles.

So does the bimusical brain behave similarly to the bilingual brain?

Gigi Luk, who studies bilingual learning at Harvard, has observed signs of enhancements in the brains of people who grow up with two verbal languages.

“ We found a better performance [among bilinguals] in what we call executive functions,” says Luk.

Executive function tasks involve things like planning, problem solving, and multitasking. “We see this advantage across the lifespan from young children to older adults,” she says.

Bilingualism has clear differences from Wong’s bimusicalism. For one thing, speaking a language is more active and involved than listening to music.

Still, Gigi Luk isn’t surprised by Wong’s findings. She believes that all that switching, whether between languages or musical cultures, leaves a physiological impact.

“Our experiences, whether they’re musical or linguistic, actually shape our brain and give us a qualitative difference in brain networks,” says Luk.

There’s still much more to learn about just how that qualitative difference plays out in the bimusical brain. But Patrick Wong believes his research opens a door.

“This is telling us that perhaps being bicultural might change our biology in a fundamental way,” says Wong.

But does that give the bimusical, bicultural mind the same sort of cognitive edge as the bilingual mind? That’s for a future study.

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Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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