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 (749 Responses)
  1. MileSwa

    buy cialis with paypal cialispills online european cialis

    June 5, 2021 at 03:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sprinter Repair Costa Mesa


    June 5, 2021 at 04:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sprinter Armrest Repair


    June 5, 2021 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. trailer maintenance near me

    Hi, There's no doubt that your website may be having internet browser compatibility problems. When I look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening in Internet Explorer, it's got some overlapping issues. I merely wanted to give you a quick heads up! Besides that, great site!


    June 5, 2021 at 22:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. barbers near me


    June 6, 2021 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sprinter Side Door Lock Repair


    June 6, 2021 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. box truck door repair near me

    Itís nearly impossible to find educated people in this particular subject, but you seem like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 6, 2021 at 22:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. oc towing mission viejo

    Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a top notch articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I put things off a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.


    June 7, 2021 at 04:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. EncoxDev

    oxfordhealth com online pharmacy optumrx rx world pharmacy store reviews

    June 7, 2021 at 04:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. 2000 Chevy Conversion Van Body Repair Panels


    June 7, 2021 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. CrulkAsd

    .99 for cialisis low dose cialis cialis professionel

    June 7, 2021 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rv painters


    June 7, 2021 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. solar installation orange county

    This is a topic that's close to my heart... Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?


    June 7, 2021 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Countertops Los Angeles


    June 7, 2021 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. EncoxGtv

    Artane good canadian pharmacy canada pharmacy online complaints

    June 8, 2021 at 05:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Van Repair

    After I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove me from that service? Many thanks!


    June 8, 2021 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Zisseloh

    dapoxetine and cialis together when does cialis lose its patent prednisone and cialis

    June 8, 2021 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. rv generator repair

    You have made some good points there. I looked on the net for more information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this website.


    June 8, 2021 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Bay Doors Near Me


    June 8, 2021 at 18:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. rv refrigerator repair company


    June 8, 2021 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. EncoxAni

    levitra from canadian pharmacies rexall pharmacy canada princeton u store pharmacy

    June 9, 2021 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Digital Marketing Near Me

    After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!


    June 9, 2021 at 04:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Murray Slomka


    June 9, 2021 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Carroll Aldi


    June 9, 2021 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. SEO Marketing Firm

    You made some good points there. I checked on the internet to learn more about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.


    June 9, 2021 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Eugenio Kari

    Good article. I certainly appreciate this site. Keep writing!


    June 9, 2021 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. EncoxHtf

    cialis experience forum cheapest cialis canada cialis discount prices

    June 9, 2021 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Josiah Sexton

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I believe that you ought to write more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter but usually folks don't speak about such topics. To the next! All the best!!


    June 9, 2021 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Fletcher Markham

    Everything is very open with a precise explanation of the challenges. It was truly informative. Your site is extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing!

    June 9, 2021 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Deidra Monahan

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this post and also the rest of the site is also very good.


    June 9, 2021 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. rv repair near me now

    Itís hard to find experienced people on this subject, but you sound like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 10, 2021 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Sara Chiphe

    I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!


    June 10, 2021 at 02:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Cyndi Duda

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you should publish more about this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but typically people don't speak about such topics. To the next! Kind regards!!

    June 10, 2021 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Devon Blackmon

    Saved as a favorite, I love your web site!


    June 10, 2021 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. rv repair near me


    June 10, 2021 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Rachele Doncaster


    June 10, 2021 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Ronnie Bok

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you so much, However I am going through difficulties with your RSS. I donít understand the reason why I can't subscribe to it. Is there anyone else getting similar RSS problems? Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    June 10, 2021 at 17:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. rv repair service near me

    There's definately a great deal to find out about this issue. I love all the points you have made.


    June 10, 2021 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Kelle Scheffrahn

    Good site you've got here.. Itís hard to find good quality writing like yours nowadays. I really appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


    June 10, 2021 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Lashell Leiferman


    June 10, 2021 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Waldo Joganic


    June 11, 2021 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. rv repair

    Next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not disappoint me just as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, nonetheless I really believed you'd have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of crying about something you could possibly fix if you were not too busy looking for attention.


    June 11, 2021 at 04:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Ethelene Minihane


    June 11, 2021 at 06:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Cristopher Garver

    There is certainly a lot to find out about this issue. I love all the points you made.

    June 11, 2021 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Josphine Henningson


    June 11, 2021 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Deshawn Mankowski

    Your style is so unique in comparison to other folks I've read stuff from. Thank you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just book mark this site.


    June 11, 2021 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. in the box near me

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you need to publish more on this issue, it might not be a taboo matter but typically people do not speak about these subjects. To the next! Kind regards!!


    June 11, 2021 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. rv slide out repair parts

    I like it whenever people come together and share opinions. Great blog, keep it up!


    June 11, 2021 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. chloroquine online

    hydroxycloquine chloroquine diphosphate hydroxychlor 200mg

    June 11, 2021 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Interior Remodeling Los Angeles


    June 11, 2021 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.