The Bilingual Brain

This course explores the brain bases of bilingualism by discussing literature relevant to differences in age of initial learning, proficiency, and control in the nonverbal, single language and dual-language literature. Participants will learn about the latest research related to how humans learn one or two languages and other cognitive skills.

About The Course

How do two languages get processed in one brain? For over 100 years, researchers have asked this question in a variety of manners.  From this early literature, there emerged three basic principles that influence the neural bases of bilingualism: when a language is learned (age of acquisition), how well it is spoken (proficiency), and the control needed to switch or select a particular language (cognitive control).  Interestingly, age of acquisition, language proficiency, and cognitive control are not specific to learning two languages.  The topics appear both in the acquisition of a first language and of nonverbal skills such as music and sports. 


An introduction during the first week sets the stage for how the course will evolve in each of the subsequent weeks.  After that the course is structured across the three main topics, age of acquisition, proficiency and control.  For each of these topics, the first week of the course will introduce the nonverbal and single language literature in order to arrive at the key concepts for each fundamental principle.  The following week will then take the concepts derived from the non-bilingual literature and apply them to the acquisition of two languages.  The final week will involve a discussion of how each of the factors work together across time.  It will consider computer simulations of bilingualism as well as a novel conceptual model of bilingual brain representation.  This model proposes that bilingualism like other skills emerges from a set of different processing mechanisms that are layered over time.  The implications of this model for the understanding of language learning in both adults and children will be discussed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

A: Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

Q: Who should take this class?

A: You’ll find the course useful whether you are thinking about teaching or learning a language (for example, as an instructor, student or language aficionado) or just want to understand more about how our language and cognitive abilities change with time and practice.

Q: I am interested in learning another language. How will this class help me?

A: Many people ask me what the secret to learning a language is.  There is no real secret to it.  I cannot promise that you will learn that.  Rather the course will help to give people a model of how languages are learned and the factors that play a role.  With this knowledge those interested in teaching or learning a language may gain valuable information that will help inform the techniques and methods used in everyday and classroom language learning.

Q: What about people who are not bilingual?  What will they gain from the course?

A: This is actually a really good question.  I think that bilingualism is a way to look at language learning and learning in general.  Close to 40% of the course is devoted to topics that do not have anything at all to do with bilingualism.  This is done to setup a general theory of how age of initial learning, expertise and attentional control operate outside of learning two languages.  Hence, all students will gain knowledge of how learning and expertise develops over time.  This will be of interest to a wide range of people in various fields of work and study.

Q: What kind of unexpected fact will I learn in the course?

A: You will learn what golf players, musicians and bilinguals have in common.

Recommended Background

All welcome. No previous knowledge required.