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How Language Connects

Neuroscience, Trends + Research

Martina Ardizzi and Stefana Garello have explored embodied minds when speaking in a multilingual mode and they have seen how brains synchronise while processing the language.

In the realm of cognitive science, the exploration of cognition extends far beyond the confines of the individual mind. It delves into the intricate interplay between the brain, body and environment, giving rise to the paradigm of 4E cognition, which emphasizes the embodied, embedded, enacted and extended nature of cognitive processes (Newen et al. 2018). This framework challenges traditional views of cognition as solely occurring within the confines of the skull (Chomsky 1956; Fodor 1983), instead highlighting the dynamic interaction between brain, body and world (Gallese 2003; Bonini et al. 2022). Central to the concept of 4E cognition is the idea of embodiment, which posits that cognitive processes are deeply rooted in bodily experiences and sensorimotor interactions with the environment (Gallese 2005). Embodied Cognition suggests that the body plays a fundamental role in shaping cognition. Furthermore, cognition is not solely confined to the individual organism but is inherently embedded in the social and cultural context in which it occurs. The environment, including social interactions, cultural practices and linguistic conventions, serves as a scaffold for cognitive processes, shaping the way individuals perceive, interpret and make sense of the world.

Language, in particular, plays a crucial role in shaping cognition, serving as a tool for communication, social interaction and cultural transmission. From this perspective, several studies have shown that the process of language comprehension does not rely on intricate inferential mechanisms of mind reading and attribution of intentions between interlocutors (as claimed by Grice 1975; Sperber & Wilson 1995). Rather, it seems to be based on a basic and direct bodily mechanism. According to this view, language comprehension is highly dependent on the reactivation of specific sensory and motorprograms stored in cortical areas (Gallese 2008). For instance, reading or hearing a sentence such as “John grasps the cup” triggers the activation of hand-related areas in the motor cortex, even if no manual actions are performed (Buccino et al. 2005; Raposo et al. 2009; Mirabella et al. 2012).

This mechanism operates not only in the comprehension of literal and concrete sentences, but also extends to the comprehension of figurative sentences that convey abstract meanings through motor words (e.g. “John grasps the concept”, where the same verb used to describe physical actions is also used to convey abstract ideas – cf. Gallese & Lakoff 2005; De- sai et al. 2011; Jamrozik et al. 2016; Cuccio & Gallese 2018; Montalti et al. 2021). As we have shown in a recent behavioral experiment supported by Imminent grant, the motor system also seems to play a role in the creation of new concepts (Garello et al. under review). This shows that human language creativity has bodily origins and is closely linked to a sensory and motor dimension.
Furthermore, research investigating the dynamics of interaction between brains during various collective tasks has shown that individuals exhibit increased connectivity with the brains of others during direct interactions, especially during joint actions (Dumas et al., 2010) or when they share attention and pursue common goals (Dikker et al. 2017; Reinero et al. 2021), such as in a conversation. During an interpersonal dialog, synchronization of brain activity occurs primarily in the frontal and temporo-parietal regions, possibly reflecting activation of the mirror system1, involved in empathy with others (Gallese et al. 2003a). This synchronization between brains during speaking and listening is now recognized as a mechanism that facilitates the exchange of information between people’s brains and promotes the mutual understanding, coordinated attention and linguistic attunement that are essential for effective communication (Kelsen et al. 2020; Shamay2022). Consequently, a high degree of synchronization between brains is seen as an indicator of successful communication. In a nutshell, the better synchronized people’s brains are, the more effectively they can act as interlocutors.

Consequently, a high degree of synchronization between brains is seen as an indicator of successful communication. In a nutshell, the better synchronized people’s brains are, the more effectively they can act as interlocutors.

Recently, some studies have begun to investigate also the embodiment and the synchronization between interlocutors in a late acquired second language. Traditionally, it has been assumed that comprehending a second language (L2) involves less reliance on multimodal cues and thus entails lower sensorimotor engagement compared to one’s native language (L1). However, recent studies comparing L1 and L2 comprehension have yielded intriguing findings regarding the relationship between embodiment and second language acquisition. Su et al. (2020) and Feng et al. (2021) conducted priming experiments2 revealing that embodied simulation significantly contributes to L2 comprehension, encompassing both literal and metaphorical expressions. Moreover, the impact of embodiment appears to be positively correlated with the novelty of metaphors. These results are supported by an fMRI study conducted by Tian et al. (2020), which demonstrates a gradual decrease in the intensity of embodiment from processing literal stimuli to abstract ones via metaphorical expressions, evident in both L1 and L2 processing. Furthermore, some studies have indicated heightened activation in the motor cortex during L2 processing compared to L1 (Monaco et al., 2021; Ruschemeyer et al., 2006; Tian et al., 2020).

These results are consistent with a priming behavioral experiment we recently conducted, again thanks to the support of Imminent grant, in which we used literal, idiomatic and metaphorical sentences in Italian and in English with Italian native speakers with an upper intermediate proficiency of English (B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference). During the study, participants were asked to make judgments about the meaningfulness of the given action sentences after watching a video in which a hand performs an action that matched or did not match the verb used in the sentence. For all conditions and modalities, we found faster responses for sentences in L1 than for sentences in L2. The observed difference can be explained by the inherent automaticity of Italian as a native language, resulting in faster reading times when compared with a second language.

Moreover, for both languages the study revealed that responses to literal and metaphorical sentences were faster when the action shown in the video matched the verb used. However, we found that the difference between the matching and mismatching modalities in the literal condition is 260 ms larger in L2 than in L1. Instead, for the idiomatic condition, while in L1 no significant differences were found between the matching and the mismatching modalities, in L2 we found that the RTs for the matching idiomatic condition were faster than the RTs for the mismatching idiomatic condition. This is due probably to the fact that idiomatic sentences in L2 are not as crystallized and automatically processed as in L1 but offer room for the compositional construction of their meaning depending on the speaker’s experience (cf. Garello et al. under review).

Taken together, these data show that watching action-related videos improves language comprehension, especially for the second language, at least for literal and concrete sentences (cf. Ifantidou & Hatzidaki 2019). This result is consistent with the findings of Dahl et al. (2014) and Zhang et al. (2023), who show that speakers benefit more from meaningful gestures for L2 than L1, especially when dealing with less proficient L2 users (Sueyoshi & Hardison 2005). Likewise, Ibanez et al. (2010) and Drijvers & Özyürek (2018) observed that in L2 speakers, mismatching meaningful gestures result in a more negative N400 response compared to their L1 counterparts. To summarize, the study confirms, at least for literal sentences, that the difficulty of linguistic processing in the L2 is mitigated to a greater extent when multimodal cues are present.

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Similarly, when examining brain-to-brain interactions it appears that synchronization is more pronounced when using a second language (L2) than when using the native language (L1). In such cases, the distributed pattern of synchronization between the brains is more extensive than when only one language is used (Perez et al., 2019; Davidesco et al. 2019). Indeed, language switching results in observable synchronization between the frontal, centro-, temporo- and parietal regions of the interlocutors. Studies on language switching have consistently reported activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when speakers switch from one language to another (Blanco-Elorrieta et al., 2018). The interpretation is that in multilingual contexts, the activation of synchronization processes involving both linguistic and non-linguistic mechanisms – such as empathic, social and inferential processes – is necessary to enable effective linguistic communication, comprehension and translation.

More recently, synchronization between brains in foreign language learning environments has been explored (Nozawa et al., 2021). The study found that inter-brain synchronization serves as a quantitative measure for assessing converging and diverging collective motivational dynamics during collaborative foreign language learning, with higher levels of inter-brain synchronization corresponding to a converging flow experience. Thus, an increased level of synchronization between brains not only improves mutual understanding in native and multilingual interactions, but also facilitates the learning of new languages. The sensorimotor and multimodal dimensions thus seem to play a central role in our cognitive life and call into question the Cartesian distinction between cognition and perception, between a mind and a body that houses it (Ryle 1949). Even the linguistic sphere of our cognition proves to be characterized by sensorimotor mechanisms and bodily synchronization with our interlocutors.

The interpretation is that in multilingual contexts, the activation of synchronization processes involving both linguistic and non-linguistic mechanisms – such as empathic, social and inferential processes – is necessary to enable effective linguistic communication, comprehension and translation.

In addition, with the exponential increase in multilingual populations worldwide, understanding how L2 learners navigate the processing of language and the “language game” (Wittgenstein 1953) in which they are involved is of paramount importance. The realization that the mechanisms at play in interactions with L2 individuals rely heavily on embodied and multimodal cues and are closely linked to synchronization between brains’ interlocutors is of great importance for a better understanding of language learning and teaching as well as intercultural communication and prompts us to rethink our research paradigms.

Photo Credit: Bret Kavanaugh – Unsplash

Article Footnotes

  1. The mirror neuron system (MNS) is a network of brain regions involved in both performing and observing actions, feeling and perceive emotions and experiencing or viewing sensations. The MNS helps in understanding and empathizing with others’ actions, intentions and emotions. ↩︎
  2. A priming experiment is a psychological research method used to investigate how exposure to certain stimuli (the “prime”) influences subsequent behavior or cognitive processes. In such experiments, participants are typically exposed to a stimulus intended to activate specific mental representations or concepts, which may then affect their responses to subsequent stimuli. Priming can occur consciously or unconsciously and can impact various cognitive functions, such as memory, perception, and decision-making. ↩︎

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Martina Ardizzi

Martina Ardizzi

Neuropsychologist researcher

Martina Ardizzi obtained her Master degree in Neurosciences and Neuropsychological Rehabilitation at the University of Bologna (Italy) in 2010. In 2014 she achieved her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Parma, Italy, under the supervision of prof. Vittorio Gallese, studying the effect of childhood maltreatment on intersubjectivity development in Sierra Leone. At the moment, she is fixed-term researcher at the Department of Medicine and Surgery – Unit of Neuroscience of the University of Parma.

Stefana Garello

Stefana Garello

PhD in Philosophy of Language

Stefana Garello received her PhD in philosophy of language from the University of Palermo in 2022. She was a post-doctoral researcher at the Unit of Neuroscience of the University of Parma and received a research fellowship at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology of the University of Antwerp. In the past, she was visiting researcher at Leiden University and University College London. Her research interests include metaphors, pragmatics and the relationship between language and the non-propositional dimension of cognition.