Understanding BROCA and WERNICKE speech areas
(Language acquisition in young learners)

by Jocely de Deus Pinheiro

Instructions for the teacher: read the information Sunflower is freely giving to her readers: it's extremely interesting for everybody, especially English teachers!!!

 

Understanding BROCA and WERNICKE speech areas
(Language acquisition in young learners)

Dear Farm Friends,

Have you ever stopped to think a bit about the human brain?

• What is the human brain?
• What is it made of?
• How does it work?
• How do people learn?

Actually, as teachers, we need to know a bit about the anatomy of the human brain and how it works; after all, we are working with its development, aren’t we?

 

 

 

 

The human brain is probably the most complex organized matter in the universe. There is an enormous number of brain cells (neurons) - 100 billion - with potential for an infinite number of connections (synapses), all waiting to be woven into the intricate tapestry of the mind. Some of the neurons have already been hard-wired but trillions upon trillions more are pure and of almost infinite potential. (Begley, 1996:55).

The brain distinguishes itself from most other organs of the human body due to the fact that it presents a great peak of development in the period correspondent from birth until the age of ten. The human brain achieves half of its mature weight at the age of six months and at the age of eight it has already achieved 90% of its maturity. This means that the most important period in the life of a child is his/her 10 first years!!! The experiences lived during early childhood are essential for the development of the brain.

If there is a lack of development that should take place in the earliest years, the deficits can never fully be made up. In some cases, the damage is irreversible. (Zafrana, 2001a:2)

So, how does the brain develop and learn? Well, the human brain achieves maturity not by the multiplication of its cells (neurons) but by the number of connections (synapses) that the neurons are capable of making. Just for you to have an idea, each neuron can be connected to other 15 thousand neurons, linking in a complex web. This complex web of neurons (synapses) is what we call the brain. The more connections the neurons make, the more the brain knows, that is, the more it has learned!

  It is through the five senses (seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching) that a child experiences and builds/strengthens synapses. This means that, as a teacher, our job is to stimulate the five senses so that the neurons can make and strengthen as many connections as possible. Depending on how repeatedly the experience is lived by the child, the stronger this synapse will become. This works for positive and negative experiences. The brain learns by reinforcing patterns. If a child strengthens positive experiences he/she will be more likely to become a healthy, intelligent and happy adult with good self-esteem whereas if he/se strengthens negative experiences, he/se will be more like to be a bitter, unhealthy adult with difficulties in learning and low self-esteem. Thus, positive experiences are a synonym of good learning and development!

The task of teachers is the one of stimulating the brain by promoting opportunities in which the child can live positive experiences. I say positive experiences because we don’t want our students to build and strengthen synapses of tough and unhappy experiences, do we?

Like a sculptor, the child’s experience prunes away unneeded – or unused – synapses, while strengthening those patterns of connections that are repeatedly used. In this way, habits of the mind may become, quite literally, structures of the brain. (Begley, 1996: 56)

Neurons physically blossom in response to stimulation like a flower responding to sunlight. (Zafrana, 2001a:3)

  In order for learning to take place, the child must experience and reinforce the experience. Thus, children mustn’t be taught in a passive way. The learning process at young ages must be active and meaningful to the child’s age and range of interests. If the topics we teach and the way we teach them are not perceived as interesting and meaningful, our students will end up not learning what we truly wish them to learn… It’s not what we teach that counts; it’s the way we teach it!

How do you feel knowing you are much more than TEACHERS? How do you feel knowing you are BRAIN ENGINEERS? Whenever I discover something new about my profession, I get really happy!!! Of course, it’s also a lot more responsibility, isn’t it?

Now, I’ve got two questions to ask you BRAIN ENGINEERS:

  1. Does a bilingual speaker represent each language in different areas of the brain?
  2. What effects does age of second language acquisition have on brain representation? (Hernández & Bates, 2001:80)
 

Can you answer these questions? Yes or No? (…)

Ok, don’t panic! I’ll help you answer them… But before getting to the answers, we need to go back into History and recall the beginning of the studies in Neurology and meet Dr. Broca and Dr. Wernicke. We also need to recall the most important questions that scientists who investigated bilingualism asked themselves for a long time.

 

Well, the existence of more than one language system in the brain suggests the development of a sophisticated mechanism of separation and division which controls and impedes cross-talk, that is, the interference of one system on the others, (Dehaene, 1999). Imagine how funny it would be if a bilingual speaker couldn’t control the systems he/she has in his/her mind. In my case, being able to speak Portuguese, English, and Spanish, I would probably end up saying silly things such as: “ Eu like drink infusiones of menta poleo com lemon y bolacha Maria mucho!”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the big questions that scientists asked about bilingualism were:

  1. Where is each language system stored: in one same area of the brain or in different ones?
  2. Are there any differences between the bilingual brains of people who acquired a foreign language at young stages of life, and people who learned a foreign language after adulthood? (Chipongian, 2000b; Dehane, 1999; Boeree, 2004).
According to Boeree (2004), the first scientific contributions related to the areas responsible to language development date back to the years 1864 and 1874, and are attributed to the scientists Dr. Paul Broca and Dr. Carl Wernicke. Although Broca and Wernicke had very restricted means of investigation, they offered a great contribution for future studies of the human brain. Their hypotheses have been proved throughout the years, especially after the development of technology, which enables the study of the living brain and its functions.

The first area of the brain, which was discovered, was the left hemisphere. It was named Broca´s Area after its discoverer Dr. Paul Pierre Broca (see his photo, wasn’t he charming?). Well, hum, hum, Dr. Broca was a French scientist (a neurologist) who studied people that had difficulties and/or impossibilities of producing speech (we call aphasia the difficulty or impossibility of producing and/or understanding speech).

Well, Dr. Broca had a patient who had severe problems of speech production and who could only say the word TAN. Due to this, Dr Broca attributed the pseudo-name TAN to this patient when doing his scientific writings. When TAN died, Dr. Broca performed the autopsy and studied his brain very carefully. Dr. Broca observed that the area corresponding to the frontal lobe of TAN’s brain was severely damaged. This damaged area of the brain is just above the motor cortex, which is responsible for controlling the mouth functions. Therefore, Dr. Broca elaborated the hypothesis that this area must be the one responsible for speech production. Much later on, other scientists proved he was right. Remember, that at the time of Dr. Broca, it was not possible to study the living human brain in action as it is possible today…
 

Scientists call APHASIA OF BROCA or APHASIA OF EXPRESSION, the difficulty or incapacity of producing speech. Thus, a person who has APHASIA OF BROCA does not have difficulty understanding speech but has problems when trying to produce it. Speech can come out slow and slurred. It may be that people with APHASIA OF BROCA are not capable of producing complete sentences, might omit essential grammar units or have difficulty controlling some grammatical rules. Due to the fact that Broca’s area is also related to the capacity of managing complex aspects of grammar, people that suffer of APHASIA OF BROCA might not understand very well the meaning of sentences in the Passive Voice. They have difficulty to distinguish between the one who suffers and produces the action. Some people with APHASIA OF BROCA are simply totally incapable of speaking. (I definitively haven’t got APHASIA OF BROCA because I simply can’t stop producing speech! If you doubt it, just ask my dear Farm friends: they’re always telling me to shut up!!!)

The second speech area to be discovered is what we know today as WERNICKE’S AREA. It was discovered in 1874 by the neurologist Dr. Carl Wernicke. (He was born in Tarnovitz, Poland but his family moved to Germany where he received all his education and became a well-known scientist). Dr. Wernicke had a patient that spoke relatively well but who was incapable of understanding the speech and discourse of other people. After his death, Dr. Wernicke performed the autopsy of his brain and observed that there were seirous damages in the area above the temporal lobe, just next to the auditory cortex. Thus, he elaborated the hypothesis that this specific area must be responsible for speech comprehension. As Dr. Broca’s, Dr. Wernicke’s hypothesis as also proved later on in History…

Scientists call APHASIA OF WERNICKE or APHASIA OF RECEPTION, the partial or total difficulty to understand speech. A person who has APHASIA OF WERNICKE might answer a question using sentences which are grammatically perfect, but which have little or no link at all to the content of the question. I must add that WERNICKE’S AREA is also related to the ability of naming things correctly. It is known that some people with APHASIA OF WERNICKE have a very confusing mental dictionary; that’s why they have difficulty naming things, especially when using words which have similar pronunciation to other ones (e.g. kitchen and chicken). This phenomenon of having difficulty to name things correctly is called WORD SALAD.

  So, now we know that we have two very important areas in our brain: BROCA and WERNICKE. Both BROCA and WERNICKE are on the left side of our brain. We must remember that BROCA is responsible for speech production and WERNICKE for speech comprehension. But why is this so important??? Because the discovery of these areas allowed scientists to come to the conclusion that it is the left side of our brain, which is responsible for the language functions: speech production and comprehension. It was only during the 1950s and 1960s, almost one hundred years after BROCA’S and WERNICKE’S AREAS were discovered, that scientists elaborated the concept of LATERALIZATION.

(…) Oh, what is LATERALIZATION? (…) Of course I will explain what it is…

LATERALIZATION is the preference in using one side of the body over the other. In the case of brain lateralization, it is the phenomenon in which the brain “decides” that it is its left side, which will be more directly responsible for the language functions than the right side. This specialisation of the left hemisphere for the language functions usually starts around the ages of 4 and finishes at the age of 10, (Lenneberg, 1967).

Scientists think that the areas of speech production and comprehension are the ones more strongly perceived in the brain due to the fact that speaking and understanding speech are the skills humans master longer. Maybe, in the future, our brain will also develop specific areas for reading and writing. Some scientists think that the angular gyrus (an area found between WERNICKE and the visual cortex) might be the one the brain is specialising for the ability of reading. Have a look at the different areas of the brain:


Now comes the interesting part; the part that interests us, language teachers… By using very modern technology, scientists observed that our mother language and the foreign languages we master are stored in sub-areas of both BROCA and WERNICKE. In the area of BROCA (of speech production), it was observed a distinguished space between where mother language and foreign languages are stored whereas in WERNICKE (speech comprehension), there isn’t. Scientists also observed that, anatomically speaking, there are two kinds of bilingual brains: brains that become bilinguals at early ages and brains that become bilinguals as adult. Yes, you’ve understood it correctly: the brains of bilinguals that acquired/learned foreign languages during childhood are different!!! I’ll explain…

People that acquire/learn foreign languages while they are children have BROCA working as a unit when they speak. When a person acquires/learns a language as a child, the sub-areas of BROCA turn into one big area. Mother language and foreign languages are stored in the same place, and the whole area is activated when the person speaks. There is an interconnection between both systems (foreign and native) and both are used at the same time even though the person is processing thought and expressing him/herself only in one language. Isn’t this amazing??? On the other hand, people that learn foreign languages after adulthood, present BROCA working with its sub-areas in a very distinguished way. They use each sub-area in a separate way when speaking the mother language and foreign languages. I bet you have already observed this in a practical way: your adult students probably have more facility when understanding language than when producing it, isn’t it? Well, now you know WHY this happens… It happens because WERNICKE works as a unit whereas BROCA doesn’t. As a matter of fact, your young learners do not present the same difficulty when producing language because their BROCA area is starting to work as a unit, thus the facility they have for language production.

ISN’T THIS A GRAT REASON TO CONVINCE US ALL THAT THE SOONER WE STAR LEARNING LANGUAGES, THE BETTER???

You might ask me, WHAT’S THE POINT IN KNOWING ALL THIS? Well, I’d say that the point is that we teachers are brain engineers, actually, brain sculptors… If we know that by promoting effective experiences with the foreign language, we are sculpting a more complex brains, we’d better star reflecting on ways to plan our classes in order to achieve this. So that students, especially young learners, can develop BROCA the most they can and be more fluent while producing both mother and foreign language, we need to promote positive and effective experiences with the foreign language and this means

USING THE LANGUAGE IN MEANINGFUL CONTEXTS
and not simply TALKING ABOUT IT’S GRAMMAR…

 

I hope you have enjoyed learning about BROCA and WERNICKE!!! I really did!!! Next column we’ll be talking about the way our brain learns languages in a more effective way. We’ll also be talking about other physiological advantages that learning languages bring to the human brain…

See you soon.
Love,
Sunflower

 

References:

Begley, Sharon. (1996). Your child’s brain. In Newsweek, 19th Feb., pp.55-61.

Boeree, C.George. (2004). Speeh and the Brain.http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/speechbrain.html

Chipongian, Lisa. (2000a). Is there a critical period for learning a foreign language? In Brain Connection, June. http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/critical-period3

Chipongian, Lisa. (2000b). The cognitive advantages of balanced bilingualism. In Brain Connection, June. http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/printindex.php3?main=fa/cognitive-bilingualism

Dehaene, Stanislas. (1999). Fitting two languages in the brain. In Brain, Vol 122, No 12, December, pp. 2207-2208.

Hernández, Arturo E. & Bates, Elizabeth. (2001). Bilingualism and the brain. In MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge-MA. MIT Press, pp. 80-81.

Lenneberg, Eric H. (1967). Biological Foundations of language. New York. Wiley.

Zafrana, Maria. (2001a). Preschool education: golden age of humanity (part 1). In YOGA Magazine, May.
http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2001/3may01/golden1.shtml

Zafrana, Maria. (2001b). Preschool education: golden age of humanity (part 2). In YOGA Magazine, July.
http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2001/4jul01/golden2.shtml

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