Right Brain Crucial to Language Success

“The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success”
A new study, “Speech processing and plasticity in the right hemisphere predict variation in adult foreign language learning,” published in NeuroImage, focuses on the roles played by the brain’s left and right hemispheres in language acquisition. The findings could lead to instructional methods that potentially improve students’ success in learning a new language.
The brains of 24 students of were scanned before and after a month-long intensive Mandarin program. University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi was surprised by the results: “The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success” in learning Mandarin.
“This was new,” she said. “For
decades, everyone has focused on the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere
has been largely overlooked.” The left hemisphere is undoubtedly important in
language learning, Qi said, noting that clinical research on individuals with
speech disorders has indicated that the left side of the brain is in many ways
the hub of language processing.
However, according to Qi, during the
early stages of language acquisition before people begin processing vocabulary
and grammar, they first have to identify its basic sounds or phonological
elements. The right side of the brain is key to distinguishing “acoustic
details” of sounds.
During the study, the participants were
taught in a setting designed to replicate a college language class, although
the usual semester was condensed into four weeks of instruction. Students
attended class for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, completed
homework assignments and took tests.
“Our research is the first to look
at attainment and long-term retention of real-world language learned in a
classroom setting, which is how most people learn a new language,” Qi said.
By scanning each participant’s brain
with functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) at the beginning and end of
the project, the scientists were able to see which part of the brain was most
engaged while processing basic sound elements in Mandarin. To their surprise,
they found that the right hemisphere in the most successful learners was most
active in the early, sound-recognition stage, although, as expected, the left hemisphere
showed a substantial increase of activation later in the learning process.
“It turns out that the right
hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the
beginning of learning,” Qi said. She added that the right hemisphere’s role
then seems to diminish in those successful learners as they continue learning
the language.
Additional research will investigate
whether the findings apply to those learning other languages, not just
Mandarin. The eventual goal is to explore whether someone can practice sound
recognition early in the process of learning a new language to potentially
improve their success.


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