Linguist Forum

Specializations => Language Acquisition => Topic started by: bilingual on January 17, 2020, 09:05:32 AM

Title: Ambidexterity due to bilingualism?
Post by: bilingual on January 17, 2020, 09:05:32 AM
Dear community,

I have just registered as a new member of this forum to ask you a question on the topic of bilingualism. This question has been on my mind for a long time.

I was brought up as a bilingual English and German speaker (English mother, German father), acquired both languages in parallel and I'm equally proficient in both. My bilingualism is particularly helpful for my profession as a translator and interpreter at the translation agency AP Fach├╝bersetzungen ( in Nuremberg, Germany.

Although I was taught to write using my right hand, I have always noticed that my right hand is not "stronger" or more comfortable to use than my left hand when it comes to other daily activities. I actually prefer using my left hand for some activities (especially opening bottles). Once, during a family birthday party, my (German) uncle remarked that I had raised my water glass using my left instead of my right hand, and he suspected that I was left-handed.

Therefore, I am wondering whether there might be a connection between this ambidexterity and my bilingual upbringing. According to a science article I recently read, ambidexterity is caused by both brain hemispheres being equally dominant. By contrast, people who are clearly right-handed or left-handed have one brain hemisphere that is more dominant than the other. Is it possible, though, that early acquisition of two languages can have an effect on a person's handedness? Has anyone read any expert opinions on the topic?

Your answers are very welcome!

Kind regards, Helen

Title: Re: Ambidexterity due to bilingualism?
Post by: Daniel on January 17, 2020, 02:20:11 PM
That's an interesting question. I'm not sure about specific research on that, but I'll add my perspective.

I'm left handed, although for a few activities I learned from right handed people, so I'm not exactly ambidextrous but it seems like I can be, with practice. At least for using scissors and throwing a frisbee, I use my right hand, and I can't easily switch to my left hand (likely due to lack of practice). For almost everything else (including writing) I use my left hand. (For a few things I've tried using my right hand, for example with bowling, and aside from practice it seems like I could switch if I wanted.) And I've heard similar things from/about other left-handed people: being left-handed in itself seems to generally correlate with being more flexible, whereas right-handed people have more trouble switching to the left hand. But another factor is that in some Western cultures "left" is considered "bad" historically (cf. Latin sinister!) and children have often been encouraged (or forced) to use their right hand instead. Because of that, supported also by the fact that left-handed people tend to be more able to be flexible, this has probably created a number of de-facto but not natural right-handed people. Regardless, the absolutes are probably not the best perspective: what seems more relevant is simply the degree of flexibility for an individual. What you're describing just sounds like you are flexible (perhaps naturally left-handed, but practiced at using your right hand, or just in general flexible either way).

I'm not sure how that relates to language learning. In my case, I like studying languages and that is motivation to do so, although I don't know that I have any specific talent for it. (The fact that I have studied many languages has caused family and friends to say that they think I have a talent for it, but that's just because I do it a lot, and I've never felt particularly gifted in that area, just interested/motivated.) So I can't really comment from personal experience, and I'm not sure about research on this specific topic.

My general understanding is that native bilingualism is not manifested as for example having one language in one half of the brain and the other in the other. They're not simply separated like that. We do have a strong cognitive ability to distinguish languages (although young bilingual children may often mix them up until they learn the social norms of distinguishing them!), but that doesn't mean they're biologically/physically separate in the brain (at least not in the extreme: they may be parallel in the same regions, etc.). Different aspects of language use would relate to both hemispheres, and I assume equally between two bilingual languages. (There is a lot of research on different types of bilingualism, and for your question the topic of dominance is very important, which would vary by individual. Few people truly have two balanced native languages where one is not dominant over the other, so that's important to consider.)

There are much greater differences regarding second (=non-native) languages, which may be processed quite differently depending on level of proficiency. (In general, higher proficiency non-native languages begin to converge on the same kinds of neural processing as native languages, versus lower proficiency which might be processed very differently, but this area of research is really starting to grow right now and we don't have a full picture of all of the details yet. There are some fascinating experiments regarding brain activity, e.g. measuring electrical charges with sensors attached to the top of the head in experiments!)

Something else to consider is that there are still substantial limits to our understanding of how language is localized in the brain. We do know that there are some specific areas that are important for aspects of language use (based on studies of medical trauma), but we don't know enough about the full scope of language in the brain to exactly delimit all of the relevant regions, or whether language is really localized to those regions at all vs. just being processed within those regions. For that reason I'm not sure that asking about hemispheres is the most relevant way to consider language use, since there are also important factors within each hemisphere that might have a bigger effect on these issues. More generally I would assume that cognitive factors like "creativity" would play some kind of (indirect?) role in both language use and handedness.

At the same time, there are some fascinating anecdotal cases (often reported in the news, and not always verified scientifically, and too rare to study as a controlled experiment), where some of these factors seem to be relevant. One that I remember is of a high school student who was in a car accident and lost the ability to speak (native) English, but was able to communicate in (second-language) Spanish (from current Spanish classes).

In the end, cognitive flexibility can absolutely be a helpful factor in language learning. (And there is some current research that suggests that multilingualism is actually helpful for the brain, such as having a positive effect on aging, so the correlation might also be bidirectional, that being bilingual leads to more cognitive flexibility.) On the other hand, there's a bit of a paradox, which is that being fluent in a language actually also means being limited in that language: fluency is specifically when you are not flexible because the specific grammatical patterns come naturally to you (as opposed to potential alternatives). Automaticity in language use is crucial, although flexibility is also important during acquisition. Various cognitive abilities have been tested in relation to language learning and use. One relevant example is executive function (the ability to control attention or inhibit alternative processes), which can help with things like memorization.

Anyway that's a very long not-quite answer, but maybe some helpful ideas for you. One problem is that designing a well-balanced study on this would be challenging specifically because both handedness and bilingualism are so variable across individuals.

On the other hand (pun intended!), and I probably should have started the answer with this, there actually has been some research on this topic, which you might find interesting: (testing bilinguals who switched hands, no clear effect) (comparative perspective on scientific methodology of studying handedness/bilingualism each as gradient phenomena, but not specifically a study of a cognitive relationship) (some studies have reported increased use of the right hemisphere in bilinguals, but that may not be reliable) (no evidence for difference between bilinguals and monolinguals for processing in brain hemispheres) (possible correlation between handedness and hemiphere use for language) (no full text available online; title suggests being left handed and/or bilingual might be a risk factor for learning languages?!) (it's a relevant question but we don't understand it well yet)
As several of these studies in fact emphasize, it's important to interpret the results of this research cautiously, because it's hard to know how well it generalizes across individuals (and languages). Most importantly, it's very difficult to determine causation (e.g. whether being bilingual might cause or be caused by handedness, or whether both might be correlated with other factors, and to what extent all of that varies across individuals). Another interesting parallel here is the effect of society: speech communities typically impose standard languages on most speakers (at least for formal purposes), and as I mentioned above, traditionally in many Western cultures being right-handed has been considered "right", so the effect of community (e.g. parental, peer, etc.) pressure on changing (or choosing) handedness/language is an important and potentially confounding factor.