Learning about learning languages: An interview with Lorraine K. Obler

by on February 19, 2016

Miranda Metheny spoke to Dr Lorraine K. Obler, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, on the sidelines of the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York City. Dr Obler’s work focuses on language and how it is affected by various neuropsychological disorders, and she has written several books on the subject including Language and the Brain and The Bilingual Brain: Neuropsychological and Neurolinguistic Aspects of Bilingualism.

What piqued your interest in psycholinguistics?

I knew this guy whom I thought was very bright but he was unable to learn foreign languages. That made it very clear to me that they were different—that learning a language wasn’t as related to IQ as I thought it had been.

What languages do you speak?

English is the only one I speak fluently because I grew up in this country and my family’s been here for four generations so we’ve lost any language they may have brought over with them from Europe. In high school, I studied French and I’m pretty good at reading but if I speak it now, which I’m willing to do, I make a lot of errors. Hebrew, I only learnt to speak and listen. I go to Israel twice a year so I continue using it but I don’t read and write it. I’ve also studied a bit of Spanish and German, and a semester of Chinese. Oh, I’ve studied Arabic for 4 years too but I haven’t kept up with it so much. I learnt to read and write, more than to speak it.

Do you know any of the cognitive benefits of language studies? You shared earlier that the cause and effect are a bit muddled, but what has your research led you to believe could be the effect of language study?

Well, the obvious advantage of studying languages is that you know them. Many talk about cognitive reserves in older adults and later onset of Alzheimer’s disease. But that’s not so much due to language study as it is being bilingual. The two are often correlated but not always. I suppose it is also fair to say that learning a foreign language often helps people think about their first language in ways they didn’t initially. It helps us realise how arbitrary words are. And it helps us figure out why we should be saying ‘for whom are you buying that book?’ for example. Those are tasks that get well paid for in life and linguists enjoy thinking about.

So it’s intuitive to think that with multilingualism, the more languages the better. But have you seen any research that seems to suggest a plateau or a point at which they start interfering with each other rather than help?

I haven’t seen any such research. Michael Erard mentioned today that the question he’s interested in is, ‘what is the largest number of languages a person could learn?’ I always told him that wasn’t the interesting question. The interesting question is how does the brain handle as many languages as it is exposed to?

I think rather than number of languages, what determines whether or not they interfere with each other is structural similarity and the cognitive networks that help you learn any language. But these can also slow you down when you try to talk in a one of two languages that you often mix. The more similar the languages, the more you mix them up, though you’ll probably learn the vocabulary more easily.

Do you think current therapy programmes are effective and sufficient in enabling people with aphasia to communicate better?

No, there always has to be more, there has to be a way to do more to help people with aphasia. And we say people with aphasia rather than aphasics because we’re treating them as people rather than a disease. There are effective therapies to help some, but there could be more effective ones, we hope, in the future.

Does the type of language affect the type of language mixing that occurs in patients with aphasia?

Probably. No one has studied that to my knowledge but it probably does, in the same way how closely related languages are to each other or how different they are affects mixing in people who don’t have aphasia. Mixing is a very constrained, rule-governed phenomenon. Healthy people and those with aphasia, I’m guessing, will follow those rules on what’s appropriate mixing. Actually I’m not even guessing, I have a student who’s doing a study where that’s a small piece of what she does. So the type of mixing is the same in both groups. If you have a speaker of Japanese and English, it’s harder to find the right places to code switch than it would be if he was a speaker of French and English, or French and Spanish.

You said something about people losing their first language to their second language. Could you expand on that a little bit more?

That happens to people we call heritage language speakers. No one knows for sure how it happens, but there’s this pretty shocking study by a team including Christophe Pallier. They found that children adopted from Korea to France as late as age 8 or 9, when tested as adults, their brains responded like native speakers of French, not like people who knew any Korean. They claimed they didn’t know any Korean. So it has to be in some way, and I’m using metaphors, that the brain overwrites the earlier learnt but not fully consolidated language that hasn’t been heard.

We’d like to know if you play a musical instrument and how you think music ability affects language learning.

I had 3 or 4 years of piano lessons but I don’t play any music except for my voice today. I sing in a chorus and have for about 20 years. But I am quite affected by a case study I did where we had an exceptional second language learner, who is a native speaker of American English, a pretty good speaker of Moroccan Arabic, and French, and other languages, who has merely normal musical ability. That says to me that while musical ability may be helpful for language learning, it’s certainly not necessary to be a good second language learner.

This is how I understand the rope theory based on the talks about it today: learning a language is like weaving a rope; higher intelligence on a specific task could be a strand of the rope, but also interest, exposure and all of these things. Do you have any plans or ideas on how you could tease out the difference between those for further research like by comparing people who score high overall cognitively but haven’t been exposed to or haven’t taken a specific interest in languages as opposed to people who have?

That’s an interesting strategy, taking two groups of highly intelligent folks—one group of individuals who have been exposed to a number of languages and have learnt them, and the other group of individuals who haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to other languages and haven’t learnt them. So we’re holding constant the overall cognitive ability and we might expect—if practicing learning language helps you learn a language—we’d expect the first group to do better on learning some new language we’ve cooked up for them than the second. But that wouldn’t be shocking because it has to be. We know you take things you learnt about your second language into the learning of your third and fourth languages. I suppose the shocking thing would be if both groups learnt the same language equally well.


6 Responses to “Learning about learning languages”

  1. Yong Huang

    Dr. Obler answered the question whether “the more languages the better” interpreting “better” as better in studying languages. If I interpret it as better to mental health, I know of one article that claims trilingualism is not better than bilingualism:

    According to the 2013 article “Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status” (http://kwistuup.net/_/mss/ALLADI_etal_2013.pdf), “[t]here was no additional benefit to speaking more than 2 languages.” Table 3 shows that bilinguals start Alzheimer at age 66.0 (compared to monolinguals at 61.1), but trilinguals start at 65.1 and quadrilinguals at 66.2, two numbers not statistically significantly different from 66.0.

    By the way, excellent interview!

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