In the head of bilinguals and interpreters: neurolinguistic aspects

proz community choice 2014A topic that has always captured my interest from a very young age is the neurolinguistic perspective of bilingualism and interpreting, in other words, how does our brain work in order to make such a “magic” possible? The person that, years ago, answered my question in the most complete way is Laura Gran (1999, 1992), interpreter and interpreting lecturer at the SSLMIT Trieste, Italy. If you have the same curiosity, I would like to share with you a brief summary of what I discovered about this fascinating topic.

Hemispheres

It is widely known that brain hemispheres’ functions are not symmetrical, but let’s be more specific. Speaking is a motor activity (Gran 1999, p. 208) engaging both hemispheres, in particular:

  • the left hemisphere focuses on decoding and producing phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical features;
  • the right hemisphere deals with the interpretation of implicit meanings (e.g. from the inferences resulting from the general knowledge and the situational context) and seems to recognise better signs of emotions and other paralinguistic factors, which are very important for the comprehension of metaphors, sarcastic expressions, irony, etc. (Gran 1999, p. 212; Gran and Fabbro 1995) —if you watch The Big Bang Theory, the answer is “Yes, Sheldon Cooper must be suffering from right hemisphere damages!”—.

 functions-of-the-brain-hemispheres

Bilingualism and polyglossia

Bilingual

Studies have already revealed that the brain structure of bilinguals is different from monolinguals’, but there’s great controversy when it comes to defining what a bilingual actually is. Based on my humble experience, I completely agree with Gran suggesting that it’s not black or white. There are so many differences among bilinguals, and they should be therefore considered as standing at different stages of a multidimensional continuum, where significant variances in terms of —phonetic, morphologic, syntactic, lexical, phonetic and semantic— structure and linguistic skills —i.e. comprehension and listening, visual and gestural production— can be found. A very good point was made by Grosjean (1982) —expert in bilingualism— claiming that bilinguals cannot be regarded as the sum of two monolinguals, since —among other aspects— the coexistence and constant interaction of the two languages imply a different organisation of linguistic functions.

The most relevant factors determining the cerebral structure of the two languages are:

  • age of second language (L2) acquisition, differentiating early from late bilinguals;
  • acquisition method —i.e. spontaneous or metalinguistic/at school—, differentiating compound from coordinate bilinguals —i.e. learning L2 in a bilingual context or in different socioemotional environments, respectively—;
  • gender: in right-handed male monolinguals, language is lateralised mostly in the left hemisphere, whereas it is more symmetrical in females.

bilingual

The early and simultaneous acquisition of the two languages is translated into a lateralisation of both languages in the left-hemisphere. On the contrary, those bilinguals acquiring L2 later and/or in different socioemotional contexts, tend to have separate cognitive systems for the two languages.

Experimental studies show that the cerebral representation can change as a result of an intense study of these languages and by practicing simultaneous interpreting. In both cases, languages, when activated, do not seem to be lateralised mainly in the left hemisphere, but rather symmetrically in both hemispheres. This is not to be interpreted as a shift from one hemisphere to another, but rather as a shift of attention, which is a fundamental feature in interpreting (Gran 1999, p. 215).

The activation threshold hypothesis 

According to the activation threshold hypothesis, the comprehension/production threshold of a word or expression (item) requires that its activation exceeds that of other possible alternatives —i.e. synonyms—. Consequently, the activation threshold of all the elements competing with the item needs to be enhanced. In other words, the item is activated, whereas all its synonyms and words belonging to the same semantic fields are inhibited. This process happens both in monolinguals and in bilinguals, with the only difference that the latter do not only inhibit synonyms in one language, but also all the equivalents in the other. In fact, when a bilingual —or multilingual— person wants to speak in a certain language, the activation threshold of the inhibited language is enhanced in order to avoid interferences during the speech, but not up to the extent that loanwords or mixed expression can be completely avoided or that the comprehension of the other language may be affected. In fact, this inhibition is never total: even when a bilingual subject interacts with monolinguals, the other language system is never completely deactivated (Gran 1999, p. 223-224).

What happens in simultaneous interpreting, of course, is different from the daily routine of a bilingual. Interpreters, in fact, need to activate the target language (TL) system in order to translate the decoded source-language (SL) message. At the same time, they have to briefly retain the SL information segments that keep coming in. Consequently, the systems of both languages are activated, but not necessarily at equal levels. Probably, the SL will have a higher activation threshold than the TL. According to Gran (1999, p. 224), we can suppose that the threshold of both SL and TL is lowered so that the interpreter can draw on both language systems simultaneously.

Moreover, when a verbal message gets to the brain, two parallel processes take place: memorisation and decoding. The SL sounds are stored in memory for approximately one second and are then converted into “meaning and form” in the short-term memory until they are decoded. When this happens, form is erased and only the meaning keeps being retained in memory before being translated into the TL.

The choice of the ear in simultaneous interpreting

Alessandra Vita interpreter translatorAnother very interesting point is the choice of the ear. As you might be familiar with, interpreters in fact tend to have only one ear completely covered by the headphones, whereas the other only partially or not at all. This second ear is supposed to check the interpreter’s TL message and its quality. As in my case, the tendency among interpreters is to listen to the SL message from the left ear and to use the right ear for the TL quality-check. This spontaneous common choice is explained by Gran (1999, p. 225) in the following terms: the left ear (right hemisphere) seems to better elaborate the SL message, whereas the right ear (left hemisphere) to control the TL production.

What’s your “ear-habit on the phone”?

ear hemispheresA final question to conclude this complex topic more lightly: among the multilingual people reading this post, do you have different “ear-habits” when speaking to the phone? In particular, do you put your mobile phone on the left ear or on the right ear for a conversation in your mother tongue? Does the ear change for a conversation in languages other than your mother tongue? I myself noticed some differences and I’m very curious to know about you. Please leave a comment to share your “ear-habit on the phone”! It would be much appreciated and indeed very interesting!

If you liked this post, you might be interested in reading “The Foreign Language Effect – Mandela was right!“, explaining that a person does not think in the same way in his/her mother tongue and in a foreign language and that this difference may affect our decision-making process.

Have a nice week everyone!

References:

GRAN, L. L’interpretazione simultanea: premesse di neurolinguistica. In FALBO, C., RUSSO, M. and STRANIERO SERGIO, F. (eds). Interpretazione simultanea e consecutiva. Problemi teorici e metodologie didattiche. Milano: Ulrico Hoepli Editore S.p.A., 1999, p. 207-227.

GRAN, L. and FABBRO, F. Ear asymmetry in simultaneous interpretation. In LAMBERT, S. (ed). A Cognitive Approach to Interpreter Training. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995.

GRAN, L. Aspetti dell’organizzazione cerebrale del linguaggio: dal monoliguismo all’interpretazione simultanea. Udice: Campanotto, 1992.

GROSJEAN, F. Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

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  • Marcia De Brito

    Thank you for sharing, interest reading. As a brain aficionado and avid reader of neurolinguistics and neuroscience I used to read a lot about the right-brained, left-brained theories, until in 2013 I came across this study from an American university questioning the whole thing. Among other things, it claims: “It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection, ” said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D.” if you wish to read more about, here goes one link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130814190513.htm
    Thanks again.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Hi Marcia, thank you very much for your interesting contribution. I will indeed have a look at it. :)

  • Steven

    I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) just over a year ago in a car accident. As a result of the TBI I experienced considerable speech and mental processing problems, including slurred speech, stuttering, difficulty reading and pronunciation issues. What I found to be quite interesting was that in the early phases of recovery, my improvement was different depending on which language I was using. As a matter of fact, my ostensible mother tongue, English, was the one that I had the most difficulties reading and pronouncing. I had the least difficulties with L6 (Italian) followed by L3 (French), L4 (Spanish), L5 (German) and L2 (Dutch), in that order. I believe the difficulties have more to do with the illogical nature of written English, than with anything else. Indeed, I ran into the most problems with words that could generally be described as exceptions to the rules, where there were consonants that were pronounced in a manner that was not as common, such as “enough”. The Latin languages on the other hand came back very quickly. I also found that when reading texts containing German words and mentions of Germany, my pronunciation also switched to German. At one point, even though I tried over ten times, I was simply not able to pronounce “village wells”. All that came out was “willage vells”. In the tests that they used to judge my progress, it likewise became clear that my processing speed improved at different rates in the various languages (I did the same tests, that consisted in describing the combination of three variables: color, quantity and object that appeared on a deck of cards in each language). After one year, I have made close to a full recovery.
    As far as the choice of ear, I generally use the right ear for the telephone. I believe because I am right handed and have better dexterity with the right hand. When interpreting, I generally cover one ear to start out until I have got my voice volume under control and then cover both ears.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Steven, I am very sorry about your accident and would like to thank you for kindly sharing your experience with us. Such cases are perfect proof of the different lateralisation of languages.

      It is the first time I hear about the shift from only one ear to both of them covered when interpreting. Interesting!

      I wish you a full recovery and thank you very much again. Have a nice day!

  • Jose Sanmartin

    Your were able to say “neurolinguistic perspective of bilingualism and interpreting” at a very young age? Wow! I wish I would have been eating out of the same “pentola” you did when I was a kid!!
    On a more serious note, and perhaps related to the same interesting conversation you are opening up. I believe languages have, besides words, music. Have you ever had difficulty maintaining communication in one language and not switch to another sharing the same “music” and for which you have a similar lever of fluency?

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Hi Jose! Thank you for your comment. That’s what happens if you grow up reading all Freud’s books! 😉

      I agree with you. Languages definitely have music and I think that you can be perfectly fluent in one language but if you don’t have that music, your message will definitely be affected. It’s an additional barrier. It takes time and it’s particularly difficulty for people such as Italians, who have indeed a strong accent when speaking foreign langauges.

      Have a nice day! :)

  • Claudia Brauer

    Alessandra, what a fantastic article. I have shared it with my social network and others interested in the subject. Very well written and informative.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you very much, dear Claudia. I am glad you liked it. Have a nice day!

  • gbbg

    Great article, thank you for sharing it with us. I am Bulgarian native. I studied English for 9 years (starting kind of late at 14 years of age/. From these 9 years- 4 years I was university student with a major in translation- I graduated proficiency level. For the past 9 years I live in the States. Since 2009 I speak Bulgarian rarely just with family and close friends- approximately one time per week…I speak English daily due to work and family situation here in the states but I do not get to speak Bulgarian that often.. I use the right ear when on the phone and it does not change when speaking Bulgarian or English. I hope this helps your research – have a great day.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Mikha L’Ours

    Hi Alessandra,

    I do not translate but I am a French citizen living in Montreal and I am litterally speaking both English and French every day. When on the phone, I’m using my right ear for my natural language and left ear for English.
    This was particularly rich. Thanks.

    Mickaël.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you very much, Mickaël. We have something in common then!

      Have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Christoffer Jakobsson Gottberg

    Interesting article, thank you. I work as a simultaneous interpreter for the EU, and have two TLs, Swedish and English (the latter acquired later in life), so was particularly interested to find what effects this has on my brain. On the topic of listening/producing output, I note that while I have a distinct phone ear (my left, simply because I’m left-handed) I do cover both ears completely with my head set when working, regardless of which language I am working into.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Christoffer,

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience. I am very glad you found the post useful.

      Have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Thais

    Hello Alessandra,
    I find your article very interesting. I tend to use my left ear when speaking in my native language and right when using foreign ones, but I also think it’s mostly because I am always doing something while speaking in my language and when I do it in foreign ones I am a bit more concentrated. Btw. I speak three foreign languages and the first one I learnt when I was five and lived in that country, now I am living in a country of my third language but my native language was (almost) always dominant.
    Thanks for the article.
    Best,
    Thais

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Thais,

      Thanks for your comment. I love your “concentration theory”. I’ll check soon whether it is the same for me or not! 😉

      Have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Eva Karlsson

    About choice of ear in simultaneous interpretation – I use both, after having received that tip from an experienced colleague when I started out, in order to keep volume down and hopefully save my hearing in the long run. It works fine, it’s just a matter of practising.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Eva,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It also answers to MikoMasr’s point regarding early hearing loss. I guess interpreters may obtain great results with either one of the three options (i.e. 1. left ear covered, 2. right ear covered, 3. both ears covered), but one could be simply more natural to them.

      Thanks again and have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Maria Blagojevic

    Dear
    Alessandra,

    Interesting article! I’ve learned my first foreign language at the age of 10, the next one
    only at the age of 16, the following at 17, than at 19 and the last one at 30
    (all the other languages I’m trying to add are still far from C1 level). For all of those languages I use the same ear and the choice would depend on my parallel activity (writing something down, having a noisy surrounding…), the same goes for my children who are three-lingual. When in the booth it is my right ear that is covered though… I know that when I talk in my sleep I do it in any of my 5 languages (HR, FR, EN, NL, RU sometimes even in IT which is my weak C language), I definitely think in the language I speak. One thing though I’d like to ask you all: do you notice the change of your point of view
    according to the language you speak? I don’t mean a huge change, but as if your
    attitude would slightly bend towards the mentality of that language?

    I live in a three-lingual country, Belgium, with French as a very strong B, Dutch as a very good B and a very weak German (not even a C language): I know that people perceive me differently in Dutch than in French…

    I’ve also noticed a slight difference in attitude of my children when they switch from
    one to the other language… even though they sometimes don’t even realized they switched it (they’d ask me “In what language did I speak just now”)…

    I’d even go further: my choice of books is not the same in the UK, France, Flanders, Italy, Croatia… one of the reasons being that each language has its own “style”, but still… I cannot stop wondering why :-)

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Maria,

      Thank you very much for sharing with us your experience. With regards to your question, I do notice a slight change of perspective. On the one hand, it is due to the different style of the language (e.g. I am far more formal in German than in Spanish). On the other, I think it is due to the so-called “Foreign Language Effect” (you can read more about it in this post: http://alessandravita.com/foreign-language-effect/). Would you agree? Let me know!

      Thanks again and have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

      • Maria Blagojevic

        First
        I’d like to apologize for my, what seem to be grammatical, errors! Wow, the
        importance of reading before posting…

        And, yes, I do agree with you Alessandra. No matter how well you speak the B
        language, the emotions will never be the same as in your mother tongue! Let’s
        just say that if a word weighs 200
        g in your B language it would weigh 250 g in your own, mother,
        tongue :-)

  • Yelena

    Hi Alessandra, thanks for an interesting blog article. I personally prefer to use my right ear on the phone in both English and Russian. I’ve also heard it somewhere that the right ear is more efficient for listening to speech, while the left ear is better at listening to music. And here is another article related to the research: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8116321.stm

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Yelena,

      Thank you very much for your comment and for sharing that interesting article.

      In my case, I used to use only my right ear for calls in Italian when I was younger and in an almost-monolingual context. After several years in a bilingual environment, I still slightly prefer the right ear when it comes to Italian, but I am also very comfortable using the left one. For Spanish (as well as English and German, which I speak less often), instead, I generally use the latter.

      Thanks again and have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Cynthia

    Thank you Alessandra for this article. It is the subject, which I find one of the most interesting within linguistics :) Answering your question, I usually put the phone on the right ear, but I also tend to switch the site while talking on the phone, especially if the conversation is longer than 4-5 minutes (no matter if it is my mother tongue–Polish or English).

    Have a good weekend!

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Cynthia,

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us! Have a wonderful day! :)

      Alessandra

  • MikoMasr

    Very interesting article ! However, something I have always wondered about is wether using only one ear for the SL in simultaneous interpreting might promote early hearing loss. When both ears are covered, you tend to lower the volume because you can hear the SL better, and at the same time you need to keep the SL quiet enough to be able to hear yourself. Intuitively I have always thought of it as a better way to protect your hearing, and I constantly notice how colleagues using only one side of their headphones systematically have their volume up about twice as much as me.
    I hope more research can focus on hearing loss prevention among interpreters in the future…

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Miko (hopefully I got your name right),

      Thanks for the interesting point. I am afraid I have no data about that. Let’s hope it doesn’t lead to early hearing loss.

      In any case, I wouldn’t be able to interpret now with both ears covered since this would prevent me from checking my performance and it would also be very distracting. Maybe it’s just routine, who knows!

      Thanks again for your comment and have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • Marijana

    Very interesting article! Now that I think about it, I use my right ear when I’m having conversations in my mother tounge (I do switch ears from time to time if the conversation is lenghty) and the left one when using my second language. Never really noticed it before!

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Dear Marijana,

      Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t thought about it either living several years in a bilingual context and reading about the topic.
      It works the same for me. Plus, the shift from an almost-monolingual context to a bilingual one brought more flexibility when it comes to the mother tongue: I still prefer using the right ear, but I am also comfortable with the left one.

      Thanks again and have a nice day! :)

      Alessandra

  • caro-targamannu

    Pleasure.It is a NLP approach but there is a lot in it an interpreter can identify with; there is also a very interesting documentary ( 1 hour long ) about the thought process about anything and everything https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbh5l0b2-0o

  • caro-targamannu

    Thanks for your reply; so I am not the only one with crazy goings inside my head…Have you read a book Frogs into Princes by the way ?
    Kind regards
    ct

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      You’re definitely in good company, believe me! And regarding the book, I’ve just read the review and looks indeed very interesting. I’ll add it to my to-read list and will let you know. Thanks for recommending it.

      Alessandra :)

  • caro-targamannu

    Dear Allesandra,
    many thanks for your article; I am also fascinated by Neurolinguistics( my pet subject).Some time ago I went to a lecture by Dr Bialystok “Getting old with 2 languages” and during that lecture I decided that my brain could be used for research…I just need to find the right place to accept my donation- I am not joking I am quite serious about it and already mentioned it to my family.
    Regarding my ear-habit please see the following :
    I noticed that when using mobile phone it is my right ear and when using landline sometimes left but tend to use more my right ear and it does not matter which language I use. When interpreting it is my left ear uncovered but sometimes I switch to my right ear in order to block the noise interference.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you for your contribution, Caro. By the way, sometimes I also think I should have my brain studied by some very good scientists for all the crazy processes going on there! 😉

      I wish you a nive evening!

      Alessandra

  • Alina Cincan

    A very interesting post, Alessandra. Thank you. To answer your last question, I use my left ear for telephone conversations, regardless of the language (Romanian or English). I haven’t conversed much on the phone in my other languages, but I tend to think it would still be my left ear.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you very much for your comment and for sharing your habit, Alina. Have a nice day!

      Alessandra :)

  • http://www.rociosubias.wordpress.com/ Vivirparatraducirlo

    Muchas gracias por el artículo Alessandra, es un tema que siempre me ha interesado mucho.
    Yo soy diestra para todo (para el teléfono también), en cualquier lengua (francés, español, catalán, italiano, inglés), en la modalidad oral como en la escrita. Mis dos hijos son bilingües desde que nacieron (francés y español). El teléfono se lo ponen en la misma oreja independientemente de si van a hablar en español o en francés. Con respecto al bilingüismo, yo he notado que les da una facilidad enorme para aprender idiomas. Con dos años no les importaba si los dibujos estaban en francés, en inglés o en japonés, incluso asociaban gestos a palabras y las traducían luego al francés. El cerebro bilingüe utiliza zonas y activa conexiones que un monolingüe no necesita, con lo cual desarrollan tempranamente capacidades que otros no tienen.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Hola, Rocío (¿verdad?):

      Muchísimas gracias por tu comentario. Me parece fascinante el tema del bilingüismo y creo que aún queda mucho por descubrir al respecto. ¡Qué suerte tienen tus hijos!

      Un saludo

      Alessandra :)

      • http://www.rociosubias.wordpress.com/ Vivirparatraducirlo

        Sí Alessandra me llamo Rocío. Lo de mis hijos no es excepcional, los he “utilizado” 😀 como ejemplo porque los tengo cerquita y puedo observar cada día la diferencia, pero sí tienen suerte de vivir cada día con dos (y más) lenguas. Pienso que con los desplazamientos demográficos debidos a la globalización y a otras causas, cada vez son más las personas en situación de bilingüismo. ¿Los niños de las generaciones futuras serán bilingües ? yo creo que sí.

        Se sabe que la práctica de una segunda lengua modifica la estructura cerebral de los niños confrontados al bilingüismo. Cuanto más temprano se empieza la segunda lengua, más aumenta la densidad de la materia gris. El cerebro es capaz de regenerarse en función del medio en el que se desarrolla y de las expericiencias vividas, es la plasticidad cerebral y hay casos tan espectaculares como el de una niña a quien le extirparon el hemisferio izquierdo (responsable del lenguaje) con 3 añitos y con 7 años era completamente bilingüe (¡turco y holandés!).

        En Europa hay un 3% de bilingües. En Francia cohabitan unas 70 lenguas habladas por los inmigrantes y en Île de France (fuerte concentración de immigrantes) uno de cada cuatro niños es bilingüe.
        Bueno ya, dejo de escribir, que me enrollo con este tema y te voy a monopolizar el blog.
        Un saludo

        • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

          ¡”Monopoliza” todo lo que quieras!, me parece un comentario muy enriquecedor. Estoy de acuerdo contigo en que el bilingüismo aumentará de forma significativa con las demás generaciones. Yo siempre digo que, en cuanto tenga hijos, ¡me odiarán en al menos tres idiomas! Muchas gracias de nuevo por tus comentarios.

          Un saludo

          Alessandra

  • ryuseijin

    I use my phone on the right side, same as my hand. I do this for English and Chinese. Chinese is my 4th language but I didn’t start learning until I was 18. In 7 years I was able to reach native level.

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Hi, thank you for sharing your habit. What about the other two languages? By the way, congratulations on your impressive domain of Chinese in such a short time!

      Alessandra

  • Very interesting info, thanks for sharing!

    • http://alessandravita.com/ Alessandra Vita

      Thank you very much, I am very glad to hear that! :)

      Alessandra

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