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HomenewsScience & TechnologyOur native language affects brain wiring

Our native language affects brain wiring


Scientists in Leipzig, Germany have found evidence that the language we speak affects the connectivity pathways in our brain, potentially framing the way we think.

A research team from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences used magnetic resonance tomography (also known as magnetic resonance imaging/MRI) to study the brains of native German and Arabic speakers, finding differences in the neurological wiring of language areas in each group.

Doctoral researcher Xuehu Wei compared the brain scans of 94 native German and Arabic speakers, choosing the two languages based on their extreme differences. The MRI scan results conclusively showed differences in brain connectivity. 

Beyond high resolution imaging and mapping, the scans can determine exact connectivity pathways between different areas of the brain using a technique called diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI). DWI works by measuring the concentration of water molecules to generate contrast. 

Results showed that the axonal white matter connections of the brain’s language network adapt to the processing requirements, difficulties and patterns of a person’s mother tongue.

Researcher and author Alfred Anwander explained “Arabic native speakers showed a stronger connectivity between the left and right hemispheres than German native speakers.” – This strengthening was also found between semantic language regions and may be related to the relatively complex semantic and phonological processing in Arabic.”

As the study progressed, data suggested native German speakers displayed stronger connectivity in the left brain hemisphere language network. The team concluded that their findings may correlate to the complex syntactic processing of German. 

This study is one of the first in academic history to document neurological differences in the brains of different native language speakers. The research team hope it could lead to a greater understanding in cross-cultural processing differences in the brain.

Brain connectivity is modulated by learning and the environment during childhood, which influences processing and cognitive reasoning in the adult brain. Our study provides new insights how the brain adapts to cognitive demands, that is, the structural language connectome is shaped by the mother tongue.”, says Anwander. 

In their next study, the research team hope to analyze longitudinal structural changes in the brains of Arabic-speaking adults while they learn German over six months.

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