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 (748 Responses)
  1. RV Repair Shops Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 05:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. RV Repair Huntington Beach


    June 15, 2021 at 05:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RV Repair Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 06:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RV Repair California

    Great post! We are linking to this great content on our site. Keep up the good writing.


    June 15, 2021 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. RV Repair Shop Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Nearby RV Repairs


    June 15, 2021 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. RV Repair Shops Near My Location

    There's certainly a great deal to find out about this issue. I like all of the points you made.


    June 15, 2021 at 11:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Camper Repair Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. RV Repair Garden Grove

    Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful article. Thank you for supplying this info.


    June 15, 2021 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. RV Repair Near Me


    June 15, 2021 at 16:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. RV Repair Shops Near My Location


    June 15, 2021 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Repair Near My Location

    I absolutely love your website.. Excellent colors & theme. Did you build this amazing site yourself? Please reply back as Iím hoping to create my very own site and would love to know where you got this from or just what the theme is called. Appreciate it!


    June 15, 2021 at 17:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. bet-n

    Hey! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this
    site? I'm getting sick and tired of WordPress
    because I've had problems with hackers and I'm looking at options for another platform.
    I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

    June 15, 2021 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RV Repair Near Me Now


    June 15, 2021 at 19:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. RV Repair Garden Grove

    I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it. I have you saved as a favorite to look at new stuff you postÖ


    June 15, 2021 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Repair Near My Location

    I quite like looking through a post that can make people think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!


    June 15, 2021 at 23:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. RV Repair Near Me Now

    Hi, I do believe this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to come back once again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    June 16, 2021 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Repair Places Near Me

    I used to be able to find good advice from your blog posts.


    June 16, 2021 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Nearby RV Repair


    June 16, 2021 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. RV Repair Orange County California


    June 16, 2021 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. RV Repair Orange County

    Next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not disappoint me as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read through, but I really believed you would have something useful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something that you could possibly fix if you weren't too busy seeking attention.


    June 16, 2021 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Repairs Nearby


    June 16, 2021 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. bike store near me

    Everyone loves it when people come together and share ideas. Great website, continue the good work!


    June 16, 2021 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. hardee's near me


    June 16, 2021 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. church's chicken near me

    Greetings! Very helpful advice within this post! It is the little changes that produce the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!


    June 16, 2021 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. entry level jobs near me

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and the rest of the site is very good.


    June 16, 2021 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. shooting ranges near me

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


    June 16, 2021 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. dennys near me


    June 16, 2021 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. feed store near me


    June 16, 2021 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. RV Repair Near Me Now


    June 16, 2021 at 22:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Nearby RV Repair

    After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. There has to be an easy method you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!


    June 17, 2021 at 01:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. RV Repair Orange County


    June 17, 2021 at 02:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Nearby RV Repair


    June 17, 2021 at 02:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. RV Repair Santa Ana


    June 17, 2021 at 04:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. t mobile near me

    I couldnít refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!


    June 17, 2021 at 04:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me


    June 17, 2021 at 04:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. cricket wireless near me

    Great article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..


    June 17, 2021 at 06:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. walmart pharmacy near me


    June 17, 2021 at 06:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. RV Repair Santa Ana

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn't fail me as much as this particular one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually believed you would probably have something interesting to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something that you could fix if you weren't too busy looking for attention.


    June 17, 2021 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. aaa near me

    Great information. Lucky me I discovered your site by chance (stumbleupon). I have saved as a favorite for later!


    June 17, 2021 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. RV Repair


    June 17, 2021 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. cricket near me

    Iím impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog thatís both educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that too few men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy that I stumbled across this in my hunt for something concerning this.


    June 17, 2021 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. halloween stores near me

    When I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the same comment. There has to be a means you are able to remove me from that service? Thanks!


    June 17, 2021 at 20:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. dollar general near me

    I blog often and I truly thank you for your information. Your article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to take a note of your website and keep checking for new details about once a week. I opted in for your Feed too.


    June 17, 2021 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. safeway near me

    Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely feel this amazing site needs a great deal more attention. Iíll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the advice!


    June 18, 2021 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. soup near me

    Iím amazed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog thatís both equally educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is something too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I came across this in my hunt for something regarding this.


    June 18, 2021 at 02:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. buy here pay here near me


    June 18, 2021 at 04:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. jamaican food near me

    A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do believe that you ought to write more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people do not discuss such issues. To the next! All the best!!


    June 18, 2021 at 04:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. chevron near me

    Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I most certainly will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he's going to have a great read. Thanks for sharing!


    June 18, 2021 at 05:24 | 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.