Multilingual people: 3 studies that show why they learn a new language faster than bilingual people

multilingual people

Multilingual people have faster brain activation than bilingual people, and they can learn a new language easier after they have trained their brains to master a second and a third language.

Researchers studied the brain activity of multilingual and bilingual people exposed to a new language and found evidence supporting the idea that multilingual people have more advanced language acquisition skills.


Multilingual and bilingual volunteers

multilingual people

A researcher from the University of Tokyo together with a professor of linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology carried out an experiment in which they measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual people who had to identify words and sentences in Kazakh, an unknown language to them. The participants were native speakers of Japanese and were speaking English as a second language. The multilingual volunteers knew at least one more foreign language apart from Japanese and English.

Mastering at least two languages means that the volunteers knew the different grammatical rules of those languages. Japanese is similar to Kazakh in the position of the noun and the verb at the end of the sentence. English and Kazakh have a subject-verb agreement, while Japanese does not require agreement.


Testing listening skills

multilingual people

The researchers used 4 listening tests in which the participants heard Kazakh words and sentences, while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In the easiest listening test, the participants had to say whether they heard a word form in an earlier session or if it was a different grammatical form of the specific word. In the following tests, which were more difficult, they had to say if the sentence they heard was grammatical and to identify the noun and the verb phrases.

They were allowed to repeat a test until they passed the next level test. Multilingual people fluent in their languages had fewer attempts to pass the tests than the multilingual people who were less fluent. The former managed to answer faster during the last tests, suggesting that they acquired the knowledge in the first tests.


The difference in brain activity

multilingual people

The left frontal lobe becomes active in the process of learning a new language and, in the case of a second language,  the right side brain area also becomes active to support the learning. One important difference found in the experiment was that the multilingual participants had no right side activation during the easy test, while the bilingual participants had strong activity on the right-side brain areas.

Another significant difference in the bilingual-multilingual understanding of Kazakh was found at the level of basal ganglia. In the beginning, the bilingual people had low basal ganglia activity, then the activity spiked and went low again when they began the following test. Multilingual people began with low activity at the basal ganglia level, then it spiked and remained high during the following tests. This suggests that multilingual people can build on previous knowledge, and don’t learn each grammar rule separately.


Those findings support the fact that learning a new language is easier than learning a second language since multilingual people have knowledge of more languages and this helps them in the acquisition of another foreign language.


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