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Illustration Human Brain

What happens in your brain when you learn Arabic?

Learning Arabic requires different brain activity than learning German. What does this mean for adult learners? Can the brain adapt to the new demands? A study from the Max Planck Institute provides answers. In this in-depth interview, Dr. Matthias Schwendemann, who was part of the research team, provides fascinating insights into what happens in our brains when we learn Arabic or German.

Last updated: 6 months ago

Does it make a difference in our brain whether someone learns Arabic or German as a small child? And if so, what happens later in the brain when a native Arabic speaker learns German as an adult? A new study by the renowned Max Planck Institute in Germany explored such questions.

In this interview, one of the study's authors, Dr. Matthias Schwendemann, tells us more about their findings and why there's good news for anyone who wants to learn a new language late in life.

What you'll learn in this interview (TL;DR)

INTERESTING When we learn and speak Arabic, we use different brain pathways than when we do so in German.

FASCINATING When a native Arabic speaker learns German later in life, some parts and functions of the brain gradually adapt to the specific features of native German speakers.

MOTIVATING Researchers have shown that it is possible to successfully learn new things, such as Arabic, later in life. That's good news for adult learners and adult improvers.

About: Dr. Matthias Schwendemann (ماتِياس شوِينْدِيمان)

Matthias Schwendemann
Matthias Schwendemann

Matthias Schwendemann is a research associate at the Herder Institute of the University of Leipzig in Germany. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of lexicology (word formation), language of science, and acquisition and development of German as a foreign and second language. He is also an external visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. ORCID-ID Researchgate


The study and its setup

What was the original idea behind the experiment?

Matthias Schwendemann: There were two reasons for this. The concept of neuroplasticity has gained enormous relevance in neuroscience in recent years. Roughly speaking, our brains are continuously changing and adapting to new input (such as a new language), even in adulthood. So there is hope that we can still learn a lot in adulthood.

Also, and this is the second reason, experiments have shown that first languages have an influence on how brain networks function.

So the main questions that we were interested in were:

  • Can we detect differences in the brains of people with different first (≈native) languages (German and Arabic)?
  • Do the brains of the Arabic speakers change when they learn German later in life?
  • Do the brains of the Arabic speakers adapt to the structures found in the brains of people whose first language is German?

    A so-called first language, also known in everyday English as a native tongue, native language, or mother/father/parent tongue, is a language or dialect that a person has been exposed to within the first years of life or within the critical period. A person can have more than one first language. This happens when two or more languages are acquired within the first three years of life.

    According to the critical period hypothesis (CPH), the first few years of life are the period of easy language development. In other words, the first three years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills.

    Now what about the terms foreign language and second language? In academia, the most important difference between a foreign language and a second language is, in principle, the place where a language is acquired or learned.

    • A language is called a second language if it is acquired in an environment where this language is also the surrounding language. This is the case, for example, with refugees who learn German in Germany and (have to) participate in language education systems here.
    • Foreign languages, on the other hand, are languages that are learned in a context where the language being learned is not the ambient language, so the potential linguistic input for learners is more limited. An example would be someone attending a language course at a Goethe Institute outside Germany. But is this distinction still appropriate in times of online and distance learning? This question is currently being discussed in academic circles.
    • In formal Arabic, you will hear ناطِق, which is the active (اسم الفاعل) of نَطَقَ – يَنْطُقُ which means to pronounce; to speak. In certain contexts, ناطِق conveys the meaning of able to speak.
    • Also أَصْليّ is used to translate the idea of native speaker. In my opinion, this is a good solution and very close to the academic term first language .
    • In certain dialects, you may also hear بنت اللغة or ابن اللغة.
    • Native language/mother tongue is translated as اللُّغَةُ الْأَصْلِيَّةُ or, not so common, as لُغة أُمّ.

    Some examples:

    • A native German speaker… (شَخْصٌ لُغَتُهُ الْأَصْليّةُ هِيَ الْأَلْمانِيّةُ)
    • ~ The Arabs (النّاطِقُونَ بالضّادِ)
    • Teaching Arabic to non-native speakers (تَعْلِيمُ اللُّغَةِ الْعَرَبِيَّةِ لِغَيْرِ النّاطِقِينَ بِها)

    Can you briefly describe the experimental setup?

    Matthias Schwendemann: We wanted to specifically study second language acquisition in German as well as neuroplasticity, which basically means that even adult brains can change substantially during second language development. To do this, we asked a group of over 70 adult learners of German with Arabic as their first language who took part in an intensive language course (18 months), during which the learners attended 5 lessons per week, 5 days a week.

    The learners started with no prior knowledge of German or at level A1 and eventually reached approximately level B2 at the end of the language course. The learners underwent MRI and fMRI scans at regular intervals during this 18-month period, which made it possible to observe and analyze neural developments related to learning German.

    This shows the scope of this study. There was a time when the 70 students were taught by about 20 different teachers and supported by up to five additional research assistants, all of whom spoke Arabic well. It must also be said that the learners in our study were learning German under very difficult circumstances. Almost all of the participants had fled the war in Syria, were suddenly torn from their lives, and now faced the task of building a whole new life in Germany.

    The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a guideline used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe.  There are three main stages: A (basic), B (indepent language user) and C (proficient language user).

    B1Threshold levelB2Vantage

    There are also other systems, mainly used in the United States.

    • The ACTFL proficiency scale has five main levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished) and was developed to meet the need for academically oriented proficiency guidelines.
    • The ILR scale is a set of descriptions of the ability to communicate in a language. It is the standard grading scale for language proficiency in the United States federal service.

    What kind of data have you collected?

    Matthias Schwendemann: We were able to collect a large amount of very different and immensely exciting data in the context of this language course. Anatomical and functional brain scans were carried out using MRI and fMRI technology.

    We have collected also a great deal of background data on the learners which allows us to reconstruct a large part of the preconditions that the learners brought with them when they started learning German. And we collected oral and, in particular, written language data from the learners over the entire duration of the language course, which was my main work in the project. This data can be used to study actual language development in German on a longitudinal basis, for example, the development of sentence structure.

    • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are two types of brain imaging techniques that differ in purpose and method.
    • MRI is used to determine the anatomical structure of the brain by studying the hydrogen nuclei of water molecules.
    • fMRI determines the metabolic function of the brain by calculating oxygen levels. fMRI can show brain activity in response to stimuli, producing glowing images.

    Note: On the Max Planck Institute website, there is a video (in Arabic) on how the researchers used the MRI technology and what it actually is.

    What is special about German and Arabic that you chose them?

    Matthias Schwendemann: The choice of these two languages was made for several reasons.

    From a linguistic perspective, they are two very different languages that also belong to different language families.

    German belongs to the Indo-European language family and has a relatively complex syntax compared to other languages. This means that there are a number of ways to organize the word order in German sentences.

    Arabic, on the other hand, as a Semitic language, has a very rich morphology due to its underlying root system. In addition, there are the different writing systems and the opposite reading direction. Furthermore, the diglossia situation of Arabic is of course enormously interesting. From the perspective of language acquisition, it can be said that all Arabic speakers are basically already multilingual speakers who speak several languages due to Modern Standard Arabic (الفصحى) and the dialect they speak.

    But there are also very practical reasons. German, and the learning or acquisition of German, is relatively well researched in international comparison. Few languages have been the subject of so many acquisition studies. In addition, the Herder Institute of the University of Leipzig, as one of the implementing institutions of the project, is one of the oldest and largest institutes for research on German as a foreign and second language in Germany.

    In order to be able to achieve meaningful results, we needed a large number of adults to learn German simultaneously in an intensive language course over an extended period of time. In 2015, many refugees from Syria fled to Germany. They needed to learn German quickly. So there were many language learners who exactly matched our research question.

    At the same time, the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences was able to take on social responsibility in a difficult situation as well as make some very concrete things happen for the learners. The whole project thus gained a social and socio-political dimension along the way.

    Main findings

    Can you describe the different brain regions that German and Arabic speakers use to process language?

    Matthias Schwendemann: In principle, most language processes are located in the left hemisphere of the brain and more precisely in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), the left temporal lobe, and the inferior parietal cortex. These areas are also connected to each other by various pathways, so that they function as a network.

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    One hypothesis of our work was that these connections differ depending on which first language(s) – and potentially foreign/second languages – a person speaks.

    In the study we conducted, we were also able to show that language networks in the brain adapt to the specific linguistic features of the first languages (and also to the foreign and second languages). For example, comparing German and Arabic speakers, we were able to show that those with German as a first language have stronger structural connectivity of the dorsal language pathway. This pathway mainly transmits information that is important for syntax, i.e., word order and grammatical relations. You can think of it as a data highway on which very specific information is transmitted. And as that highway becomes more developed, it can carry more more data at higher speed. So there is an adaptation here to certain characteristics of German.

    Another difference we were able to work out was the stronger communication between the two hemispheres of the brain in the Arabic speakers. We assume that this could be related to the Arabic orthography, among other things.

    In my own work, I have taken a closer look at the development of syntactic structures in the learning process (Schwendemann, 2023).

    For German, a relatively linear and, above all, predictable course is often assumed here, regardless of someone's first language or prior experience. In fact, however, the language development processes of the learners we have analyzed seem to be characterized by a high degree of variability and dynamics.

    We are still evaluating the large amount of data we have collected, and certai

    DEEP DIVE: Do right-handers and left-handers use different brain regions for language?

    An estimated 90% of the world's population identifies as right-handed. The control of motor functions in the human brain is mirrored in terms of connectivity; the left hemisphere controls the right hand and vice versa. But that's not always the case, especially when it comes to language.

    You may have noticed in the interview that Dr. Schwendemann referred to the left hemisphere of the brain when asked about the region of the brain where language processing takes place. Why did he say “left”? It is because in most cases it is the left side of the brain for both right-handed and left-handed people.

    For about 95% of right-handed people, these areas of the brain are in the left hemisphere. For left-handers, the proportion drops to 70 percent, but this is still clearly the majority. Therefore, 7 out of 100 people are right hemispheric for language and left hemispheric dominant. It is still unclear whether left-handed people suffer from speech or writing deficits as a result.

    We are still evaluating the large amount of data we have collected, and certainly our view of second language acquisition will become more refined in the near future.

    Do the results also hold for native English speakers?

    Matthias Schwendemann: I would be a bit cautious here. Even though German and English have some similarities, there are considerable differences, for example, in sentence structure. English is much more restrictive here while German has a relatively variable sentence structure in comparison.

    English for example has a fixed Subject Verb Object order within a sentence. So just by the order of the words it is always clear who does what to whom. Let me give you an example:

    Katie kicks the ball.

    In German the same sentence could be expressed in various ways:

    • Katie tritt den Ball. (Katie kicks the ball.)
      In German, Katie is the subject.
    • Den Ball tritt Katie. (The Ball kicks Katie.)
      Even though Katie comes after the verb and at the end of the sentence, Katie is the subject.

    So in order to understand who does what to whom in a German sentence correctly German speakers can not only rely on sentence structure but also have to understand grammatical clues in the same sentence.

    So, regardless of the relatedness of the languages, there do seem to be differences here. At the same time, I would like to point out that first languages are only one of many differences, and learners naturally bring a whole bundle of other personal factors to language learning that can also have an influence on the development of second language learning.

    If we take mathematics and art and compare them to Arabic and German, which of the two languages would be more likely to be mathematics and which would be art?

    Matthias Schwendemann: This is an interesting question!

    For me, it is precisely this intersection between mathematics and art, or perhaps in other words between systematicity and variation and change, that makes languages and the study of languages so incredibly interesting. Languages are constantly changing and evolving. And it is precisely the creativity of their speakers, or the creativity of those who learn a language anew and bring new ideas into it, that is responsible for this constant change.

    The exciting thing here is that these innovations in the language can usually be integrated almost completely effortlessly into the already existing language system. So I see both ‘mathematical' aspects and artistic-creative processes in Arabic and in German (and actually in all languages) .

    What do your findings mean for people who want to learn Arabic as a second language in adulthood?

    Matthias Schwendemann: I think that adult learners of Arabic who are native speakers of German should not be discouraged, but they should really take their time with the language, and Arabic deserves that anyway. And they should definitely think about shorter or longer stays in Arabic-speaking countries to deepen their language acquisition.

    I think that the most encouraging analogies can be made with the group of learners studied. The learners we studied were all adult learners and it has often been assumed that these learners find learning another language very difficult and often remain closed. But what we saw in our study was that some of the learners, in the short time they had been learning German, had reached a level of proficiency that qualified them for vocational training or even university entrance exams. In my view, this shows quite clearly that languages can be learned very successfully in adulthood and that learners can be put in a position to become independent and competent language users and language practitioners.

    However, it also became clear that this was happening in a very specific context in which the learners were absolutely dependent on learning German very quickly and the learners had been learning for a long time in a very intensive language course. So language learning was able to pick up a certain momentum.

    Do your findings suggest that different learning methods would be good for Arabic and German?

    Matthias Schwendemann: Honestly, more research would be needed, specifically looking at didactic transfer. In our experimental setting, for example, we could not find any differences in the learning progress of the different learning groups.

    What is more difficult: to adapt the brain of a native German speaker to learn and understand Arabic, or vice versa?

    Matthias Schwendemann: Since language is far from being the only factor shaping our brains, this question is actually still unanswerable.

    Although this may sound like a cliché, the truth is that language development pathways are highly individualized, complex and dynamic. A number of factors have a major influence on how language learning takes place. Exactly how these factors interact with individual learners is a question to which we are only beginning to find answers. To complicate matters further, the same factors do not necessarily have the same effect on all learners and, in addition, these factors are dynamic , that is, they can also change over time.

    Max Planck Institute Study
    Max Planck Institute Study

    Arabic-speakers learning German

    Many language programs use a universal method regardless of the language of the participants. Does this make sense?

    Matthias Schwendemann: Yes and no.

    In principle, most language programs aim to make people who learn a new language capable of communicating. People should be able to do something with language, to use the language to perform certain actions independently in their everyday or professional lives. Recently, multilingualism has also come more into focus as a resource that should definitely be used in language teaching. What learners already know and what they bring with them to the learning of a new language should definitely be used. And indeed, multilingualism is the rule rather than the exception among people. For Arabic speakers, this is particularly evident given the situation of diglossia in the Arab world.

    But the first language is only one of the things learners bring with them when they learn a new language. Of course, other factors play a big role as well. So if you ask me whether we should incorporate more of the learner's experience into the classroom , I would say: yes, absolutely.

    But I don't think it's a good idea to base instruction exclusively on a first language, such as Arabic, and then say, “This is the method for people who speak Arabic as their first language!” That would not do justice to the complexity of learning and also to the individuality of learners.

    What do native Arabic speakers find most difficult about learning German?

    Matthias Schwendemann: Previous works have consistently identified “typical errors” made by Arabic-speaking learners of German:

    • Sprouting vowels;
    • Umlauts (ä, ö and ü);
    • b and p distinctions;
    • the use of certain formulaic structures.

    From my perspective, not all of these things can be causally attributed to a specific first language without further ado. In fact, there are always learners for whom only some of these structures occur, or none at all, or completely different ones. We saw that in our study as well, there were huge differences in different phenomena and learners developed very differently. Everybody had a little bit of individual challenges in learning.

    When learners themselves are asked what exactly they find difficult about German, the answer is often the different cases (4 in German), but word formation and sentence structure are also often mentioned (sometimes, the verb comes at the very end). However, numerous statements about learner groups with quite different first languages and backgrounds coincide here. So I would rather be careful about outlining particular challenges for Arabic-speaking learners of German.

    A “sprouting vowel” (Anaptyxe; from Greek ἀνάπτυξις which means „opening, unfolding“) is a vowel inserted between two consonants to make pronunciation easier. This is a sound shift,a process in which pronunciation is made easier by changing the syllable structure. This is done by inserting a vowel to form the syllable, especially before l, m and r.

    It is very rare in German; native German speakers don't have problems to pronounce several consonants in a row.
    Arabic native speakers in particular do not know clusters. After each consonant, they feel the need to suggest a vowel. For example, many pronounce the English word “next” as “nekest” because for them the word next has three consonants in a row: nekst. German is a language with many consonant clusters. Some examples: Schriftsprache (written language), Angstschweiß (cold sweat), snow in fall (Herbstschnee).

    Umlaut is the term for the German diacritical mark consisting of two placed over a vowel: ä, ö, ü. It is pronounced as „oom-lout“. For example, Gefühl – „geh-fyool“ (feeling).

    You've studied Arabic. What was the most difficult part for you?

    Matthias Schwendemann: Yes, I studied German as a Foreign and Second Language in an Arabic-German context as part of a bi-national Master's program at the Herder Institute of the University of Leipzig (Germany) and Ain Shams University in Cairo (). This means that I spent part of my studies in Leipzig and part in Cairo.

    After graduation, I also worked for a year as a lecturer at Birzeit University in the Palestinian Territories. I really enjoyed learning Arabic. Especially constructing words from roots was something that always fascinated me. At some point I had the feeling that I could make small talk, but my conversation partners probably had a completely different perspective on it (laughs).

    However, I learned mainly dialects. Unfortunately, Modern Standard Arabic always remained closed to me. Even to the level of being able to read (and really understand) newspapers or follow the news on TV, I never made it. So my skills were always rather limited. My wife had to help me, she speaks Arabic at a very high level. She then took me under her arms.

    So, based on our own research results, it was always clear to me what the learners in our study had achieved and how quickly their language skills had developed . To this day, I have a great deal of respect for that.

    Dr. Schwendemann, thank you for your time and for sharing these fascinating insights.

    A personal note from Dr. Matthias Schwendemann:

    Matthias and his team would like to thank everyone involved for their support, the teachers for their extraordinarily good teaching, the research assistants for their support in every conceivable situation and the students for their willingness to learn German to such an extent and for such a long time, which is by no means a given.

    About the institute

    The study referred to in this interview was researched by a team and published by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Click the button to read the full study here (free access):

    Max Planck was a German physicist (1858 – 1947) who is considered one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. He is known for his work on quantum theory and for developing the concept of energy quanta. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 for his work on quantum theory.

    The Max Planck Institute, named after Max Planck, is a network of more than 80 research institutes in Germany and other European countries as well as in the United States. The institutes conduct basic research in the life sciences, the natural sciences, and the social and human sciences. They are independent and autonomous in the selection and conduct of their research. The quality of the research conducted at the institutes must meet the excellence criteria of the Max Planck Society.

    • Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Angela D. Friederici, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Prinicipal Investigator
    • Prof. Dr. Christian Fandrych, Professor in Linguistics (German as a Foreign & Second Language) and Managing Director of the Herder Institute
    • Dr. Alfred Anwander, Research Associate at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Responsible Scientist
    • Dr. Tomás Goucha, Research Associate at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Responsible Scientist
    • Dr. Matthias Schwendemann, Research Associate at the Herder Institute for German as a Foreign & Second Language), Study Coordinator and Research Scientist
    • Xuehu Wei, PhD Student at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Research Scientist
    • Helyne Adamson, PhD Student at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Research Scientist
    • Martin Lisanik, PhD Student at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Research Scientist

    Book of Dr. Schwendemann (in German): Die Entwicklung syntaktischer Strukturen (Eine Längsschnittstudie anhand schriftlicher Sprachdaten erwachsener Deutschlernender mit der Erstsprache Arabisch); €79.95. You can order the book here.

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