Education News

How A UH Professor Maps Brain Activity While A Bilingual And Monolinguals Process Words

Texas is rapidly becoming more diverse. Now more than a third of households speak something other than English. It's even more common to be bilingual here in Greater Houston where four out of every ten homes speak another language.

At the University of Houston, professor Arturo Hernandez is mapping out how our brains learn different languages — like English and Spanish. I asked him about that.

“Si hablo otro idioma … what’s going on with my brain?”

“It depends so if you’re speaking a language you learned later in life, it’s very different to speak that you don’t speak normally as it is for someone who speaks a language that they’ve spoken since they were young.”

Hernandez says for people like him who’ve grown up speaking two different languages, he can look at images of their brains and see different kinds of activity.

“When you ask bilinguals to switch between each language, the brain areas that are active are similar to the ones when you ask people to switch between two different tasks.”

That backs up other research that suggests bilinguals are better at switching between other things in their daily lives.

Hernandez says when it comes to learning new vocabulary, there’s an interesting difference between people who are bilingual and others who speak just one language.

“The bilinguals actually learned these words faster and they used less brain to learn new words. So it suggests that bilinguals — the ones we tested — actually are expert word learners, because they have to learn so many labels, they’re actually better at learning new ones, which is interesting.”

Hernandez goes into this research and more in his new book called The Bilingual Brain. He hopes it will inspire teachers whose students are learning a second language.


Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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