Children may learn new languages more quickly than adults do because they use a different area of the brain, researchers said last week.
Children process all their languages in one small part of the brain, while adults who learn a new language are forced to create a brand-new storage area, they found.
Joy Hirsch and colleagues at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Cornell University Medical College in New York eavesdropped on the brain activities of 12 volunteers.
They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to watch what was going on in Broca's area, the part of the brain's frontal lobe where language is believed to be processed.
Half the volunteers had learned a second language in infancy, while half had become fluent as adolescents or young adults.
"Each of the 'late' bilingual subjects had lived in the country of the second language, which assured a high standard for fluency," Hirsch's group wrote in a report in the science journal Nature.
"Each of the early bilinguals was raised in a home where either the parent spoke one language and siblings and friends spoke another, or the parents spoke two languages."
The volunteers were asked to do tasks involving their languages while hooked up to the MRI.
The same part of the Broca's area lit up when the "early" group switched from one language to another, while the "late" group used two different areas, Hirsch's group found.
It could be that parts of the brain that are open to growth and renewal in early childhood become "set" at a later age, forcing the brain to open up a new region when new languages are learned, they said.