Recent research in Taiwan has shown that people process language in the same way, even when their native languages are very different. Studying speakers of 4 very different languages – English, Spanish, Hebrew and Chinese – the team showed that their brains show very similar patterns of brain activity during reading and speech. This led them to conclude that the way each language is processed by the brain is more universal than previously thought.

Earlier researchers had thought that different languages might use different areas of the brain – that Chinese as a “pictorial” language would process language in the right hemisphere, as that is associated with processing of images.

It turns out that both hemispheres are used, but that the left hemisphere is the more important, and that this is the case for each of the 4 languages studied. When speakers of any of these languages are reading or speaking it is primarily the left hemisphere which is activated.

The researchers tracked activity in the research subjects’ brains using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Their brain patterns when speaking or reading were almost identical, and the researchers were unable to tell which language was being used from looking at the brain scans.

Previous research has shown that the areas of the brain used in shape recognition and gesture recognition are identical for Chinese speakers and French speakers. In addition, the areas of the brain activated when processing complex number words are similar.

Commenting on the findings former Taiwan Minister of Education Ovid Tzeng said, “About 150 years ago, [French physician] Paul Broca proposed that the left hemisphere is responsible for language processing. Today, our team confirmed that reading, writing and arithmetic processing is done by the left hemisphere, which is a universal phenomenon across languages. The team’s findings are to be remembered for a long time,” he said.