How being bilingual in Spanish and Basque affects the brain / Distintos modos de procesar el lenguaje y el control bilingüe

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

An example of Basque lettering in a funerary stela.
An example of Basque lettering in a funerary stela.

Another article on the brain today. This article originally comes from, and is about the effect on the brain when one is bilingual, more specifically being bilingual in Spanish and Basque. Here's the article from about the study.

Here's how the two languages compare:
According to the terminology of linguistic typology, Basque is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language, and Spanish or English are, on the other hand, SVO type. In the Mente Bilingüe team we want to find answers to questions such as: “For those persons whose mother language is Spanish and then learn Basque after the age of five, which of these typologies or word orders do they use in language processing? Do they use the same mechanisms for processing word order as do native Basque speakers who have subsequently learnt Spanish?”
From what I've seen of Basque it seems to have a some similarities to Turkish (and Finnish, though I won't be able to conjure up any apt examples in Finnish)

  • Koldoren etxea 'Koldo's house' <-- Turkish Koldo'nun evi (here 'ren' seems to be equivalent to Turkish 'nun')
  • basoko etxea 'house in ("of") the forest' <-- Turkish ormandaki ev (ko is equivalent to 'daki')
There are a great many areas as well where they aren't the same, but most of the grammar shown here is a great deal easier to understand if you think in Turkish.

Back to the article:
Either written or auditory cues were provided by the computers with sentences of various structures and the time measured for the individuals to read/listen and respond to the prompts. “For example, the brain needs much less time for processing the Basque sentence, ‘otsoak ardiak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep) than to understand ‘ardiak otsoak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep), although both are grammatically correct”.
I don't know how this feels to a speaker of Basque, but it's no surprise that a sentence written in a different way takes longer to process.

So what are the benefits of this bilingualism?

The researchers at the University of Barcelona who have collaborated with the UPV/EHU team have concluded that highly proficient bilingual individuals and those less competent in one of their two languages do not employ the same mechanisms to change from one to the other. Also, the fact of having to control two languages with frequency trains the brain and this training may slow down the loss of certain cognitive features that appear with ageing. “We are investigating to see if these effects found amongst bilingual persons who speak Catalan and Spanish are replicated in those who speak Basque and Spanish, in order to judge if the distance between languages has any effect”, states Dr. Laka.

I guarantee the same effects won't be replicated between those that speak Catalan and Spanish, two languages that are extremely similar to each other. The only difficulty when learning a language very similar to one you already know is to make sure that you take a good look over the basics and check for anything out of the ordinary that you might assume to be correct but is actually used differently in the other language. You can see this happening on the Afrikaans Wikipedia quite a bit, where every once in a while a bit of Dutch or a Dutch-like expression finds its way in to an article.

The effect on the brain of two related languages should be about the same as those on the brain of an actor that does Shakespeare all the time. English used at the time is certainly not the same as the kind we use now, but it's similar enough that you can follow along by paying enough attention...and soon forget exactly what was said afterwards until you pick up a book and take a look at it again. It's the same effect between two related languages, where a person hearing the language can make most of it out but certainly can't pick up a pen and write a letter out in the language.

For scientists this is of great interest – analysing and comparing two bilingual populations who share one of their two languages. Moreover, Catalan and Spanish are very similar syntactically, while Basque and Spanish are highly dissimilar in this respect. As regards phonology, the reverse is the case, Spanish differs more from Catalan than it does from Basque. Thanks to this, researchers can better distinguish the effects in the brain that distance has between languages.

Meh, phonology. Phonology doesn't have that great an effect on the brain unless it's REALLY dissimilar like a Japanese person learning Vietnamese for example. Catalan is still a nearly effortless language to learn. The only problem I could see with the upcoming study is whether they are going to take into account the attitude the participants have towards the language; that is, whether some of them will consider Catalan to even be a real language. It's a real language of course, but when two languages are as similar as Spanish and Catalan people seem to have a certain sloppiness to the way they use it, because even if there's a mistake at least it's close enough, so whatever. A language like Basque can't be halfassed though, and there's no mistaking it as a dialect of another language, so the attitude towards learning and using it is going to be completely different.

I'm not saying they won't take this into account of course, just my thoughts upon reading about how the study is going to be conducted. I would rather see the results of bilingualism between a language like Spanish and Romanian, two languages that are quite related, but certainly not mutually intelligible, and different enough that a person learning Romanian can't just shrug and try to get by with a slightly modified Spanish.

Finally, just how similar are Spanish and Catalan? Here are a few examples from the Spanish Wikipedia:

  • Hola: Hola
  • Buenos días: Bon dia / Bon jorn
  • Buenas tardes: Bona tarda / Bona vesprada / Bon vespre
  • Buenas noches: Bon vespre (a la caída del sol, como saludo) / Bona nit (bien entrada la noche, como forma de despedida)
  • Adiós: Adéu, Adéu-siau
  • Saludo: Salutació
  • Despedida: Comiat / Acomiadada
  • Bienvenido/a: Benvingut/benvinguda
  • ¡Hasta otra!: A reveure['s]!, Fins una altra!
  • ¡Hasta luego!: Fins després!
  • ¡Hasta pronto!: Fins aviat! / Fins prompte!
  • Por favor: Si us plau / Per favor
  • De nada: De res
  • ¿Qué tal?: Com va?, Com va això?, Com anem?
  • [Muy] bien, ¿y tú?: [Molt] bé, i tu?
  • Gracias, muchas gracias: Gràcies/mercès, Moltes gràcies/mercès
  • Perdón, lo siento: Perdó, Em sap greu, Ho sento / Ho sent
  • ¿Cómo te llamas?: Com et dius?, Com et diuen?
  • Me llamo...: Em dic..., Em diuen..., M'anomene, Jo nom (del verbo balear nòmer)
  • Te quiero: T'estimo / T'estime / T'estim / Et vull
  • Gustar / Me gusta: Agradar / M'agrada
  • Hombre: Home
  • Mujer: Dona
  • Padre: Pare
  • Madre: Mare
  • Hijo/a: Fill/a
  • Hermano/a: Germà/na
  • Abuelo/a: Avi/Àvia / Iaio/a
  • Perro: Gos / Ca
  • Gato: Gat / Moix
  • Conejo: Conill
  • Pájaro: Ocell
  • Mercado: Mercat
  • Calle: Carrer
  • Plaza: Plaça
  • Avenida: Avinguda


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