HOW MANY OF US, IN attempting to master a second language as adults, have had an experience distressingly similar to that of Professor Timofey Pnin? Within a year of his arrival in the United States from Russia (by way of France), Pnin has become proficient enough in English to drop expressions like "wishful thinking" and "okey-dokey" into his conversation. In another year or so, he can handle practically any topic in his new language and even interrupt his narration with phrases like "to make a long story short." Thereafter, all progress ceases. A decade later, despite continual efforts at improvement, his English is still wonky and rife with flaws.

Pnin, admittedly, is a fictitious character. His creator, Vladimir Nabokov, was vastly more gifted linguistically; witness literary achievements in English like Lolita, Pale Fire, and, indeed, Pnin. Yet even Nabokov complained that his adoptive tongue never amounted to much more than "a second-rate brand of English," a hothouse creation devoid of the natural turns and ordinary associations that are every native speaker’s birthright.

Nabokov’s linguistic frustrations were a loftier version of those endured by his creature Pnin, not to mention expatriates, émigrés, and foreign correspondents everywhere. However determined their study of an adoptive language, however thorough their immersion in it, they eventually reach a plateau. At a dinner party conducted in the nonnative tongue, for instance, they may contribute to the table talk, but the best they can aspire to be is a bore. In such situations, as Evelyn Waugh observed, "there is no platitude so trite that a highly educated foreigner will not bring it out with pride."

The problem is simple: These latecomers to bilingualism have learned the new language on the wrong side of the brain.

The human brain, of course, has two hemispheres, which specialize in different things. It has long been known that the left hemisphere is overwhelmingly dominant for language. In the 1860s, the French neurologist Paul Broca studied patients suffering from various forms of aphasia (loss of language) as a result of brain injuries; in every case, these injuries were to the left side of the brain. His research, and that of the German brain scientist Carl Wernicke in the 1870s, led to the discovery of two spots on the left half of the cerebral cortex that are specifically devoted to language. Broca’s area is responsible for speech production; Wernicke’s area is involved in language comprehension and syntax.

Thanks to contemporary brain-scanning techniques, we now know that many other patches of the cerebral cortex also contribute to linguistic functioning, each storing bits and pieces of language like so many filing cabinets. Overall, the left hemisphere is dominant for some 90 percent of monolinguals. This raises an obvious question: Is the same true for bilinguals? Or might it be the case that one side of the brain is dominant for language A, and the other for language B?

The answer has been furnished in the last decade or so by experiments in which different spots on the cerebral cortex have been directly stimulated by electronic probes. (Such research, useful in treating epilepsy, has been pioneered by University of Washington neurosurgeon George Ojemann.) In balanced bilinguals–those who speak two languages with comparable fluency–the left hemisphere tends to be dominant for both languages. Within that hemisphere, however, the spots responsible for language A are largely distinct from those responsible for language B. And if language A was learned first, its spots tend to be smaller–the neurons, it seems, are more tightly wired. The language learned second has to grab whatever available neurons might be left over, so its networks are larger and more diffuse.

The most balanced bilinguals are nearly always those lucky enough to acquire both their languages as children. So what happens to those who struggle to pick up a second language after puberty? Unfortunately, it goes into the right half of your brain and, if you are like Pnin, stays there. Recent research shows that high-school-age students learning a new language initially do most of the processing of it in their right hemispheres; only after four years or so of immersion does the processing shift to the left hemisphere for some of them.

Curiously, movement can sometimes occur in the opposite direction. Fabio Franco at the University of Trieste has studied a young woman named Carla, who had been fluent in her native Italian and in English from childhood; both languages, brain scans showed, were processed mainly in her left hemisphere. When Carla began training as a simultaneous translator, however, the English began to move over to tiny areas in the right side of her brain that are not usually associated with language–presumably because more of the left side was needed for the translation work.

Since the 1960s, it has been part of the popular lore that the left brain is cold, rational, and analytic, while the right brain is intuitive, impulsive, and holistic. Silly as such dichotomies might be, it does seem likely that the left hemisphere is the more expert and automatic when it comes to language–a probability that imbalanced bilinguals, condemned to talk out of the right side of their brain, can only rue. We can’t all be like George Steiner, who claims to experience English, French, and German as "perfectly equivalent centers of myself." Nor can we hope to emulate the great linguist and polyglot Roman Jakobson who, owing to his heavy accent, was reputed to speak seven languages, all of them Russian.


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