Haifa Study: First, Second Languages Controlled by Different Parts of Brain

Ever feel like you have two languages or more competing for a finite amount of brain space?

Ever feel as though you had two languages or more competing for a finite amount of brain space?

If so, think again.

A new study by a University of Haifa researcher on bilingualism suggests that first and second languages are represented in different places in the brain.

Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim was able to extend what little knowledge exists on cerebral linguistic representation by studying the curious medical case of an Israeli Arab who, after sustaining brain damage, found it easier to regain his Arabic than his Hebrew.

The 41-year-old bilingual patient is a native Arabic speaker, but spoke Hebrew nearly as well. A university graduate, he passed entrance exams in Hebrew and used the language frequently at work.

The man suffered brain damage that caused a language disorder (aphasia), which persisted even after rehabilitation. During rehabilitation, his Arabic improved more than his Hebrew.

The study, conducted at the university's Department of Learning Disabilities and published in the Behavioral and Brain Functions journal, examined the patient's language skills after rehabilitation, revealing that his Hebrew had been significantly more damaged than his Arabic.

This finding seems to contradict many previous works that have suggested that all languages are controlled by one part of the brain.

Though this selective impairment is not enough evidence to draft a model of which parts of the brain control which aspects of language, Ibrahim says the case is an important step in that direction.

"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," Dr. Ibrahim said.