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Learning Dialects Shapes Brain Areas That Process Spoken Language

Update Date: Oct 20, 2013 07:16 PM EDT

Pitch-accent in words pronounced in languages activates different brain hemispheres which depends on the listener’s preference of using language, a Japanese study finds.

Study performed at RIKEN Brain Science Institute used advanced imaging to visualize different brain areas and came with such interesting results.

Drs. Yutaka Sato, Reiko Mazuka and their colleagues examined the different brain areas used between the native speakers and those who acquired the skill later.

Its a known fact that even two people speak the same language they might face trouble understanding each other because of the differences in dialects. When we hear a language, our brain processes that sound to extract its meaning. Dialects are those in which regional differences are more pronounced than an accent.

Languages differ at the level of grammar and vocabulary. Dialects usually differ at the level of sounds and pronunciations. In Japan there are other regional dialects that do not use pitch-accent to distinguish identical words with different meaning.

One example of the pitch-accent could be the word “pro’duce” and “produ’ce” whose meaning changes the way we stress on it. In Japanese language too they have different meaning depending upon the place where we stress the word.

As the part of experiment, participants were given three types of word pairs and were told to distinguish.

(1) words such as /ame‘/ (candy) versus /kame/ (jar) that differ in one sound, (2) words such as /ame’/ (candy) versus /a’me/ (rain) that differ in their pitch accent, and (3) words such as ‘ame’ (candy in declarative intonation) and /ame?/ (candy in a question intonation).

Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) was used by RIKEN neuroscientists to examine whether the two brain parts are activated differently in response to pitch changes.

“Our study reveals that an individual’s language experience at a young age can shape the way languages are processed in the brain,” Dr. Sato said in a press release.

“Sufficient exposure to a language at a young age may change the processing of a second language so that it is the same as that of the native language,” he added.

The study is published online in the journal of Brain and Language.

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