How does a learning a new language shape your brain? Are the brains of bilingual people different from those of people who only speak one language? Despite our advanced medical technology and fancy brain-imaging machines, our understanding of how the human brain works is still in its infancy. This is true where learning a new language is concerned, as well.
However, an interesting case study recorded in detail by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim at the University of Haifa may shed a little bit of light on the subject. Dr. Ibrahim observed a brain-injury patient who had been fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic before he was injured. As he recovered, it became apparent that he had a speech disability called aphasia as a result of the injury. Even after undergoing rehabilitative therapy, some disability remained.
The interesting thing is that the man in the study showed a much greater improvement in being able to speak and write Arabic after rehabilitation than he did in Hebrew. Although Arabic was his first language, he was fluent in both before the injury. So, to Dr. Ibrahim, the patient’s experience seems to indicate that language skills for a second language are stored in a different part of the brain than language skills for your first language are.
In an article posted on the Science Daily website, Dr. Ibrahim explained why this one case study was significant:
“The examination of such cases carries much significance, since it is rare that we can find people who fluently speak two languages and who have sustained brain damage that has selectively affected one of the languages. Moreover, most of the evidence in this field is derived from clinical observations of brain damage in English- and Indo-European-speaking patients, and few studies have been carried out on individuals who speak other languages, especially Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, until the present study,” he added.