Fighting language attrition

Last Updated 29 January 2010, 13:33 IST

Loraine Obler’s name is synonymous with her book Bilingual Brain.
The book, prescribed reading for all those interested in the brain’s processing of more than one language, has inspired many  studies across several languages. This professor from the City University of New York directs the doctoral program in speech, language and hearing sciences, is the author of several scholarly publications and recipient of many awards, including the Fulbright award for research and teaching. Dr Obler is on her fourth visit to India and is “impressed by the quality of research that is going on here”.

Drawing inspiration
Dr Obler is easy to talk to and impressive in the attention she pays to her choice of words. What inspired her to study language and brain? “My fascination for languages goes back to over 40 years, when I first decided to learn Hebrew as part of my discovery of my Jewish legacy. I was interested in exploring how religions provide a framework for interactions. So, I studied Far Eastern religions, learnt a bit of Arabic and was intrigued by how its various dialects differed substantially from the original ancient language. Then, when I went to Israel, I was exposed to Hebrew speakers learning English as their second language. This was when I decided to formally study languages and got a doctorate in Linguistics.”

The more, the merrier
But how did this lead to her interest in brain processes of language and that too disordered language? “I was teaching an introductory course to students training to be speech therapists and one of them brought in a German-English bilingual with aphasia (language deficits due to a stroke/head injury or other neurological cause). This person showed different types of deficits in the two languages. That is, while his native German was relatively well preserved, he had a lot of grammatical errors in English, which he had been using very competently before his stroke. At that time the U.S. was largely monolingual and this person with aphasia provided insights into the way the brain stored and processed different languages.”

 Much work has been done on the brain and language in the last three decades. Brain imaging and cognitive linguistic tests administered on bi/multi lingual speakers have shown that there are subtle differences in the way brain processes different languages.

The frontal lobe, a part of the brain that keeps unwanted stimuli from overwhelming us, is also more active in people who use more than two languages. Dr Obler assures us that knowing more than one language is definitely to our advantage. “It may even delay the onset of dementia.”

 Language and aging is another area of Dr Obler’s interest. “The pattern of language changes in people with aphasia is different from those with dementia. People with aphasia will know which language to use with which listener, but a person with dementia may lose this discriminatory ability.”
Why India is incredible
A country like India, where entire populations know more than one language must be fascinating, I ask. “Yes, of course. The sheer diversity of languages here is astounding but we must define what we mean by “knowing”. Is it just speaking/understanding competence or is it reading/writing too? Literacy influences language processing by the brain in interesting ways as does the type of language. For example, Kannada and Telugu share many more similarities than English and Kannada, not only in terms of the spoken language but also the scripts. The age at which you learn a second/third language is also a significant factor,” she explains.

 Ask her whether the hegemony of English is detrimental to multilingualism, and she remarks that several linguists are concerned about the disappearance of languages. A related phenomenon of language attrition is something her group has been studying now. Language attrition is the decline in linguistic abilities of a first or native language, especially among immigrants.  As some one routinely researching bi/multilingualism, Dr Obler rues that she didn’t get to learn a second language till she was 11! “I know English, Hebrew and French. The last not very proficiently,” laughs the professor who also loves chorus singing and travelling. Activities that are proven to keep one’s brain alert and in the professor’s words “to give the academician a well rounded image”.

(Published 29 January 2010, 10:45 IST)

Follow us on