September 23rd, 2010
08:00 AM ET

From brain to language to accent

Some people have a hard time learning a new language; others find it baffling when someone imitates a foreign accent (here's how the stars do it).

Ping Li, of Pennsylvania State University's Brain, Language, and Computation Lab, wants to know what distinguishes someone who can easily pick up a new language from someone who struggles.  Research has shown that early exposure is key to mastering a second language, but scientists have lots of unanswered questions about how the brain learns a new language or dialect.

The two parts of the brain that are critical for language and speech development are called Broca's area and Wernicke's area (here's more on those).  Broca's area is involved in speech articulation and producing sounds, while Wernicke's area deals more with comprehension of words, Li said.  Recent research has also implicated nearby brain regions that include the parts of the temporal lobe for storing and retrieving meanings, the parietal lobe for for mediating speech and motor representation, and the angular gyrus for integrating different sources - for instance, understanding idioms.

It turns out that the language you speak does change the way your brain processes language, studies have shown.

Li's research has compared the brains of native English speakers and Chinese speakers who are bilingual in English.  The Chinese language does not differentiate verbs and nouns in the same way that English does, and some interesting brain patterns result from that distinction:

In native English speakers, the Broca's area appears to handle verbs and the Wernicke's area deals with nouns.  Chinese speakers who are bilingual from an early age show the same brain behavior, Li said.  But when presented with the same nouns and verbs in Chinese, the Chinese bilinguals do not show a difference between Broca's and Wernicke's area with nouns and verbs.  What's more, Chinese bilinguals who learned English in college do not show the noun-verb distinction in the brain when presented with English, even though their language ability is not necessarily worse.

Research has demonstrated numerous advantages to learning a new language beyond mere communication. People who are bilingual are better able to carry on two tasks at once, switching back and forth between activities more seamlessly and weeding out irrelevant information better. But here's the downside:  Languages can actually compete in your mind, and you may start forgetting some vocabulary of the language you use less.

And it pays to start early.  Research suggests that true native fluency in any language can only be gained in early childhood; some studies found that sensitivity to foreign accent goes down after age 1!  It's not impossible to learn a new language late in life, but it does get more difficult: a 40-year-old will have a harder time than a 20-year-old, says Grant Goodall of the University of California, San Diego. Here are some resources for computer-based language learning.

Very little is known about picking up a new accent specifically, Li said.  We recently wrote about foreign accent syndrome, but it's unclear whether the speech changes in this condition can truly be considered a "foreign accent," Li said.

Li speculates that perhaps people who are good at accent imitation – such as Steve Martin in "The Pink Panther" – may have better-developed parts of the brain that handle speech sounds, or that those areas have better connections to other brain regions.

"We can make some speculations as to whether people like Steve Martin have better abilities to process sound systems of languages," he said.

soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. Marie Curie

    As a bilingual French/English person, whose mother has a (VERY) thick French accent when speaking English, let me tell you that Steve Martin's accent may seem good to English speakers, but is actually really bad. Kevin Kline (esp. French Kiss) on the other hand, has a better accent. Honestly if you wish to talk about accents, I would say the more important, would be able to hear the difference between language in the same country (i.e. southerners vs. northerners), or the difference between languages in different country (i.e. Hugh Laurie or John Barrowman's ability to speak both British and American English, nearly perfect). I also think there's such a thing as "lack of accent" and I think this works more dominantly with bilinguals. If I were to speak either French or American English, I speak well, but have no distinct accent to distinguish which region of said language I am from. Most native speakers say that I speak French with no foreign accent, just a neutral accent. Same with my American.

    September 23, 2010 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michael

      I agree – for an article on language and accent, I'm appalled the author would use Steve Martin as an example! A much better example would be Meryl Streep, who actually HAS done a decent job of portraying several accents in her movies.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:11 | Report abuse |
    • Donna

      It is interesting that I grew up in a city with a strong accent and a mother with a foreign accent and people from that city would ask me where I was from. I believe I had that "neutralizing" effect as well.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:26 | Report abuse |
    • Donna

      So what I mean to say is that the neutralizing effect is not necessarily limited to bilinguals.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
    • BruceNY

      Marie, the neutral accent in our language is the parisian accent. I have family in the north and south of France and they've always told me I spoke with a parisian accent. People in Paris will tell you your accent is neutral but what they mean is that it's no different than theirs!

      September 23, 2010 at 12:01 | Report abuse |
    • John

      Whether Steve Martin or Meryl Streep or whoever else is best at imitating accents is not really the point of his argument. He just seems to be trying to say that some people are better than others at imitating or producing other accents.

      September 23, 2010 at 22:56 | Report abuse |
    • Adriano Capitano

      I agree with Marie Curie on the "Lack of Accent" but I would descrive it mostly as "Accent Deafness", as there is not such thing as a speaker lacking an accent; everybody does have one but some people may not be able to distiguish it.

      September 26, 2010 at 17:07 | Report abuse |
  2. Ronrey

    I think the accents in Team America: World Police were spot on.

    September 23, 2010 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ken

    Very interesting read. I had a very easy time with Spanish in high school. At age 20 I went through a year of extensive language training at DLI for a government post. My Korean teachers were all native speakers and we were taught a neutral dialect (Seoul region) - and it is still very easy for me to tell where in Korea someone is from based on their accent. What's most interesting in this article is the notion of competiion for processing resources. When I learned Korean, my Spanish was greatly impacted - and now when I try to learn a few phrases in another language (like French for a trip to the Riviera) I found that as I struggled for french words that I'd learned Korean words would quickly be substituted - or Spanish which would make the locals really laugh. So, I think that there must be even more brain differences for folks who are able to be fluent in more than two languages. I agree that with the language you use less, your vocabularly contracts the most.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dali

    You start forgetting vocabulary for the language you use less and words in the most used language definitely come more naturally. But the truth is none of it is really forgotten. It just takes a little time to switch back. I used to be very fluent in French, but have not spoken it in 15 years. I spent some time in France recently and in the beginning I would struggle to find my words, I would start a sentence in French and finish it in English (which is not my native language either, but is the language I speak most now that I live in US). This lasted for almost a week. until all the "forgotten" French just came back.
    And this is all only true for speaking. When it comes to listening to others or reading, I can understand anything, without spending half a second to think about the meaning of a word.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Meat

    I agree, we should neutralize the bilinguals.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Michelle

    I disagree with the comment that if you do not use the 'other' language you will forget it. Absolutely NOT. I am French and fully bilingual French/English. I also speak (have university degrees in some) 3 other European languages, which I almost never use on daily basis. The vocabulary of these 3 languages is not lost, it resides in my brain repository, dormant if you will. Each time I am exposed to those languages again for about a week or more, like magic – the vocabulary comes back to life. It is in your brain, not forgotten.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Terry from West Texas

      Well, we can certainly generalize your experience to the entire human race.

      September 23, 2010 at 18:04 | Report abuse |
  7. Mike

    Michelle, you are right, but it is not instant. My French was good many years ago, and if I am in a place where it is spoke, I can speak some, with a small vocabulary really. Little by little I can understand speech. Not instantly. My mother was from France, and one of her names was also Michelle.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kelly McGill

    The fundamental flaw here is that they are interchanging 'language' w/ 'accent/dialect.' As a linguistics masters student, I can tell you that these are not as related as people think they are.

    September 23, 2010 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • matt

      I guess the writer is not a linguistic major like you. What matters is we understand what he is trying to say albeit with slight technicalities.

      September 23, 2010 at 14:06 | Report abuse |
    • Veggiehead

      No "they" aren't KM. The article differentiates between the capacity to pick up an accent and the ability to learn a second (or third...) language. I think you just wanted to one-up someone.

      September 23, 2010 at 18:34 | Report abuse |
  9. DB

    I like a quote from the movie "Walk in the Clouds" – something like, young man dont be fooled, I may speak with an accent but I dont think with an accent...

    September 23, 2010 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Terry from West Texas

    A former prime minister of Canada, I forget his name, was raised by a mother who spoke only French to him and a father who spoke only English. They wanted him to be fluent in both languages and this was their method. It worked very well and the gentleman was fluently bilingual.

    However, the man said that it was very difficult for him to address a woman in English. It seemed to him somehow rude and ungentlemanly to address a woman in the masculine language.


    September 23, 2010 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Veggiehead

      Many, many years ago, I knew a woman who was raised by nannies. Her parents spoke Farsi, one nanny spoke French, another English, and so on. Household staff spoke other languages. I remember her telling me she couldn't form a sentence in a single language until she went to school.

      September 23, 2010 at 18:32 | Report abuse |
  11. Veggiehead

    I found this article very interesting. I know a lot of Chinese immigrants - highly intelligent professionals - who learned English as adults. I know a little about the Chinese language, but sometimes the flubs in English these friends make don't make a lot of sense to me. This explains them, to some degree.

    I have a very good ear for accents, and for placing English speaking people by country of origin or by region by their accents (a fun game in the UK, as so many people try so hard to drop their provincial accents). However, I really struggle in learning languages - especially in speaking them. I was functionally bilingual in a European language in my twenties (meaning that I could read it, write in it, and carry on conversations in it). I can still read it, with limited vocabulary, but I cannot generate sentences in my mind. I traveled there a few years ago, and it did come back to me, but haltingly so.

    September 23, 2010 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. KonradP

    What I've always found very curious is the kind of order my brain seems to have when it comes to dealing the different foreign languages I speak. I am Italian native speaker (actually my real mother tongue is my dialect, although I've been speaking Italian since I was 3) and the first foreign language I've studied is English, from age 10 on. Then I've studied French, though never with much enthusiasm, and then Russian, my second great love after English 🙂 Now I'm 41, and when I try to conjure up some sentences in a language I can't speak, it's not the English form that comes up first but the Russian one. It's as though my brain knew that I don't want to speak my first foreign language and automatically switched to my second foreign language, even if in that case it wouldn't be of any help 🙂

    September 23, 2010 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Philip Lieberman

    The brain language theory advanced here is the state-of-the-art as of 1890 or so. Current research shows that Broca's and Wernicke's area are part of a wider net of parts of the brain linked in circuits. And Broca's and Wernicke's areas play a part in many other activities. Moreover, verbs are not processed in Broca's area, nouns elsewhere.That claim is efuted by the results of hundreds of experiments.
    The part of the brain in which Broca's area is located, together with older parts of the brain and other parts of the cortex is active when we comprehend the meaning of a sentence, which requires taking account of nouns and verbs. As for why some people are good at learning languages, that's still a mystery, similar in nature to our very imperfect knowledge of how brains work

    It's also very doubtful whether any real "foreign accent syndrome" exists. Studies of afflicted individuals show that there speech is distorted to the point that listeners unfamiliar with a particular foreign language think that it's a foreign language.

    September 23, 2010 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Colin

      Thank you Professor Lieberman for your input on this. I wonder if you could provide the reference for a recent article that reviews the research you mention. This is something I would like to follow up on!

      October 11, 2012 at 08:19 | Report abuse |
  14. Mark

    There's nothing like immersion at a young age. I was fortunate enough to live abroad when I was 2, and that propelled me to learn another language besides English when I was learning to talk. I've studied ten languages so far, and for the four I know best, I've lived in the country where they're spoken, or spent a lot of time with native speakers of the language. Immersion also leads to eventually having great accent mimicry. But there's nothing like developing an ear for it when you're a toddler.

    September 24, 2010 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Ms. Lady

    As an ESL teacher, whose job it is to teach foreign nationals to speak English as their second language, I really found this article to be fascinating. I was aware of The two parts of the brain that are critical for language and speech development, the Broca's area and the Wernicke's area. This article helps to explain so many of the problems I see in teaching adults English, whereas, the children I teach easily overcome any speech aquisition problems simply by going to English speaking schools and using the language each and every day they are at school. I am going to use this article to generate discussion with my students. This article is of particular importance to me, as a professional ESL teacher, and I sincerely thank you for it.

    September 24, 2010 at 02:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. sgadomsk

    In my family there is a boy 3 years old, whose father is Greek, mother Polish, they live in Belgium, so he speaks in the kindergarden only French (all languages fluent), probably soon he will learn Flemish and English. Very interesting experiment, I think that worth observing and writing a book later on. How capable is the human mind? How many words and phrases is it able to absorb? However I think that between Chinese and Indoeuropean languages there is a barrier very difficult to cross for adults, especially Indoeuropean. I know an Austrian, fan of Chinese language and culture, who even married a Chinese, but didn't learn this language sufficiently well, after many years.

    September 30, 2010 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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  18. saraannrichter

    I have actually been mistaken as a native speaker of a language other than my own when I talk to people. It has happened with english, spanish, and russian native speakers. I actually feel my mouth force itself to pronounce things as my brain tries to help the non-native English speaker understand what I'm saying. Its never meant offensively. But I have wondered why I do this...

    August 16, 2013 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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    When I was in my early 20's, I spent a year in Britain as part of my English Studies in college, even though that was not required. My roommates were from the North of England, and we were living between London and Oxford. I was young and determined, and toward the end of my stay natives were trying to guess which part of England I came from. A decade later, I moved to the United States where nobody could understand my heavily accented British English. As a consequence, my accent changed and my French intonation came back. It is completely unconscious on my part. I also was not as motivated as I used to be to sound like a native. I know I could copy someone's accent, but which one? Nobody thinks they have an accent . While some people make rude comments regarding my "thick" accent, many more recognize that my vocabulary is much wider than theirs. Being bilingual, almost trilingual, helps. I never have problems with not being understood and having to repeat.

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