Naja Ferjan Ramirez on Creating Bilingual Minds at TEDxLjubljana (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of brain research scientist Naja Ferjan Ramirez’s TEDx Talk on Creating Bilingual Minds at TEDxLjubljana Conference. She is a research scientist working in Dr. Patricia Kuhl’s lab. Read the full bio here.


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Naja Ferjan Ramirez – Brain research scientist

How many of you can speak two languages? Most of you can; we are in Europe after all.

Now let me ask you this: how many of you would say that you are completely fluent in two languages so that you could take a job or dream in either one of them? Not as many. Why is that? I think we can all agree that being fluent in two languages is a good thing. It creates additional job prospects, it allows us to talk to more people. It also has been linked to several cognitive and social advantages and it delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

So why are we not all fluent bilinguals? Those of us who studied foreign languages in school probably remember how hard it was and how much we struggled. I’m certainly speaking from experience here. I started learning English when I was about 10 years old in school right here in Ljubljana, and about nine years later, when I went to study in the United States, I thought my English was pretty good. I was able to do my homework just fine. But I also remember eating dinner with my college friends and not being able to follow their conversations. Or going on my first date in America and only understanding about half of what the guy was telling me.

Now I’m sure many of you have your own stories about foreign language learning. But there’s one thing that most of these stories have in common: foreign language learning is hard. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and it seems that no matter how hard we try, we rarely achieve native-like fluency. Even in those cases, when we have been using our foreign language for years we still maintain that for an accident.

Does it have to be this hard? I don’t think it does. What I’ll tell you today is that the human brain is fully capable of achieving native fluency in two languages at the same time, and that we don’t necessarily have to struggle to get there.

So what is it that we have to do to create bilingual minds? I think a very promising start is to study the brains of those who are really really good at language learning: babies. Babies are linguistic geniuses and all over the world babies learn their native languages naturally and spontaneously without anybody actually teaching them how to do this. But this gets even better. Those babies who have a chance to listen to and interact in two languages learn both and they can become native speakers of both. You and I can’t do that, and computers can’t do that either.

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So why and how are babies so good at language learning? I’m a researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, I-LABS for short. And I study the brain processing of language in babies between 0 and 3 years of age. I focus specifically on those babies who are learning two languages at the same time: bilingual babies.

The approach that we take to study the baby brain is called magnetoencephalography, MPG for short. We call it the ‘hair dryer from Mars’ but it’s important to understand that this machine is actually completely safe, non-invasive and completely silent. So pretty baby friendly. We use magnetoencephalography to study the baby brains and the MEG machine that we have at our Institute is actually one of the few in the world that’s configured specifically for babies. We also have a team of trained research assistants whose job is to keep the babies happy and entertained when we study their brains.

One question that we recently studied with MEG was: What goes on in the brains of those babies who grow up in households where two languages are spoken at the same time by native speakers? If we look at these babies’ brains before the babies even begin to talk. Are they different from those of babies who listened to a single language? Here’s how we tested this — these questions.

We brought the babies into the lab, half of them were from bilingual families where one parent was a native speaker of Spanish and the other one was a native speaker of English. The other half of the babies were from families were both parents were native English speakers, so English was the only language spoken in the household. Then to prepare the babies for MEG, we used the special digitizing pen and a head. And what this procedure allows us to do is to track the shape of the baby’s head so that we can then continuously monitor the baby’s emotions when the head is in the MEG helmet. We then brought the babies into the MEG room where they sat on a special highchair, the head goes right into the MEG helmet and the parents sit right next to them when we look at their brains.

During the MEG studies, the babies typically listened to the sounds of language; in this case, the sounds came from Spanish and English. So let’s take a listen to see what that sounded like. [Sounds] Some of these sounds are specific to English, some are specific to Spanish and some are common to both languages. All babies in these studies were exactly 11 months old. This is typically right around the time when babies begin to produce their first words but they’re not really speaking yet.

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So what did we find? What we found was that the brains of monolingual babies were specialized to process the sounds of English, their native language, and were not specialized to process the sounds of Spanish, the language to which these babies were not exposed.

What about the brains of bilingual babies? Well, as it turns out, the brains of bilingual babies were specialized to process the sounds of both languages: Spanish and English.

So what does this mean and why am I so excited about this? What this means is that the baby brain specializes to process whatever language or languages are present in the environment. The brains of those babies who listened to one language specialized to process one language but the brains of those babies who listened to two languages specialized to process two.

There is one more finding in this study that I’d like to tell you about. There’s a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. It’s highlighted in green in this schematic that you can see. But it’s right here in the very front of your brain. And we use this part of the brain to direct our attention, to switch back and forth between doing different tasks and to think flexibly. I think we can all agree that these are extremely important tasks to do in the 21st century.

We were curious to see how the two groups of babies compared in terms of their brain activity in these prefrontal areas. Interestingly, what we found was that the bilingual babies had stronger brain activity, stronger brain responses to language sounds, specifically in these prefrontal regions. Now why would that be? One explanation is that the constant switching, back and forth between two different languages provides exercise for the brain, that it strengthens these brain networks that participate in attention switching. And that this provides a cognitive boost to the bilinguals.

Many other studies have actually shown that bilingual children but also bilingual adults have advantages when it comes to tasks that require cognitive flexibility. But what’s particularly intriguing here is that we see brain differences specifically in these areas that are related to flexible thinking at 11 months of age before these babies are even speaking.