Visual Cortex in Blind Used For Reading Braille (Language)

That division of labor suggests that the brain’s structure follows a predetermined, genetic blueprint. However, evidence is mounting that brain regions can take over functions they were not genetically destined to perform. In a landmark 1996 study of people blinded early in life, neuroscientists showed that the visual cortex could participate in a nonvisual function — reading Braille.
Now, a study from MIT neuroscientists shows that in individuals born blind, parts of the visual cortex are recruited for language processing. The finding suggests that the visual cortex can dramatically change its function — from visual processing to language — and it also appears to overturn the idea that language processing can only occur in highly specialized brain regions that are genetically programmed for language tasks.
“Your brain is not a prepackaged kind of thing. It doesn’t develop along a fixed trajectory, rather, it’s a self-building toolkit. The building process is profoundly influenced by the experiences you have during your development,” says Marina Bedny, an MIT postdoctoral associate in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Feb. 28. (via.)

Neural plasticity is a wonderful thing!

Novel Reading for Language Learning

We’ll classify this as barely-neuro, but I enjoyed a few of these interesting tidbits from “Language Fixation” blog:

A lot of people have this idea that learning comes out of a textbook. The textbooks or classrooms have all the knowledge inside of them, and you are the empty vessel. You pour the knowledge out of the textbook until it fills up your brain and then you know it! Simple, right?

In reality, learning anything, particularly a new language, is more about the habits that you form and the things that you do. You need to continually make contact with the language and try to understand it, and to enjoy it. When your only contact is a boring textbook, it’s hard to keep going back. It usually starts to feel like “work”.

So, what I’ve been recommending to these people is to make a personal habit of trying to read a book in that language, and to listen to real audio content. This usually takes a bit of explaining, because people will start saying “but that’s the end result I want, not the first step!”. Actually, you get good at books by reading books. They have the best content, and they will keep you coming back for more, which is exactly what you need to do over and over again. [...]

For Extensive Reading, you might want to have a goal of the number of words. I had read about some Japanese students who were reading English books, and they had a goal of 1 million (1,000,000) words read (without using the dictionary while reading). They said that if you read 1 million words, there’s no way that you can suck at that language.

They were right! By the time I hit the 1M word mark in German, I could enjoy any novel I picked up. I rarely had to use a dictionary any more, and there were very few words per page that were unfamiliar….I actually had to actively search to find words that I didn’t know. It varies a bit from book to book, so I started to seek out harder novels, but they soon became easy.

Extensive reading, our language spelunking friend defines, as reading without the dictionary. He’s saying, if you drag your eyes across 1 million words, then you will have achieved your goal. (Obviously this means you’ll probably be looking up words as soon as you’re done with a reading session!).

Go check out the original post at LanguageFixation.

Enhancing Language Acquisiton via an Algorithm (An idea?)

via /r/linguistics:

Idea #2:
A website that allows you to enter the vocabulary words you know in a language, which it then algorithmically finds articles on the internet that includes the words you know, while introducing new ones at a rate of 10-20% per article.

With each article, the new words are included, with definition at the bottom in your native language, and perhaps even includes an updated mnemosyne/supermemo/anki flash card stack.

I would pay for this! On a monthly basis, and I think hundreds of thousands of people would too. Entire institutions would probably adopt it almost immediately. Think of the power… It would allow people to immediately start engaging and using the language they’re learning from day one in a very natural and progressive manner. This could revolutionize the way people learn articles and there is technology that is similar in nature that exists already. See copyscape (it’s a site that checks or plagiarism in bodies of text).

Why has this not been done yet? The best reason I can come up with, in my mind, is that the right people possessing the right skills simply haven’t had the stroke of insight.

What do you guys think?

Addendum for idea #2:
So everyone seems to dig the second idea. Perhaps the most sensible way to use this product/website is from day one of starting to learn a new language, in which case, a really sensible way to find the initial vocab words to learn it would be cool to plug in an article, in your native language, on a subject you’re really interested in, and it pull out the top translated words you’d need to understand a similar article in the language you’re going to pick it up in. This could help to start that initial entry of vocab words that would be awkward to get the ball rolling.

In addition, perhaps as a way to “set the initial bar” for vocab the app/website could show a body of text and let a person click the words that they either do or do not understand. This might make more sense than manual entry. This might even be more useful/intuitive to use than the suggestion in the paragraph immediately prior to this one.

Someone replied with a suggestion for a website that is at least somewhat similar:

hey guy I know a website that is very similar to the description you’ve made in the idea #2.
It doesn’t looks for texts on Google, but it has a huge library in 10 languages with materials in both AUDIO and TEXT. You can also IMPORT your own content to the site.
There are tools in which you can tell to the system of the site that you know a word.
When I first got to the site I already had a good vocabulary. So, I imported texts where you know all the words and clicked the “I know all” buttom, telling to the system of the site: ‘Hey, I know all this words. Give me something more difficult!”
Number of Unknown Words When you go to the library you can see the amount of unknown words in every material.
Dictionary Integrated to the Site When you open a material, you have a huge array of online dictionaries one click away of you. There’s babylon, google translator and more. You just have to click on the word to see the definitions.
Flash Card tool When you click in a word, you not only see the definiton, but you can also create a flash card for this word, using its definition and an example of a phrase with this word (taken from the text you are reading).
Every time you open a lesson at the site, you see the words you don’t know highlighted in blue. The words for which you have created a flash card highlighted in yellow.
And Much More You can have help from native speakers tutors to answers your questions, correct texts and chat online.
Take a look, it’s called LingQ.
Best Regards. Pedro Junior

Researchers predict capacity to learn language based on brain anatomy

Based on the size of Heschl’s Gyrus (HG), a brain structure that typically accounts for no more than 0.2 percent of entire brain volume, the researchers found they could predict — even before exposing study participants to an invented language — which participants would be more successful in learning 18 words in the “pseudo” language. [...] According to Warrier, Northwestern research professor of communication sciences and disorders, the researchers were surprised to find the HG important in second language learning. “The HG, which contains the primary region of the auditory cortex, is typically associated with handling the basic building blocks of sound — whether the pitch of a sound is going up or down, where sounds come from and how loud a sound is — and not associated with speech per se,” she said. [...] In a behavioral study, Wong’s group found that musical training started at an early age contributed to more successful spoken foreign-language learning. The study participants with musical experience also were found to be better at identifying pitch patterns before training.