Brain reads Portuguese and English language the same way

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

In a study published in the journal NeuroImage, a team of international scientists established that there is neural commonality between the brain’s reading of English and Portuguese.

The team, led by Carnegie Mellon University scientists, first created a model that mapped meanings of certain sentences in English to the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain activation scans of the subjects. Using this model, the researchers then predicted the meaning of new sentences in Portuguese with 67 percent accuracy. This means that the brain activity shown while recognizing and understanding similar content in different languages is very similar. Furthermore, the images of the neural signatures obtained were similar in both location and intensity.

This study is the first of its kind to show that neural signatures are similar across different languages while describing things. The study was conducted using 60 different Portuguese sentences constructed from 96 different word concepts. These word concepts are also known as content words. These sentences weren’t used to initially train the algorithm. Among the test subjects there were 15 Portuguese speakers, eight of whom were bilingual in both Portuguese and English. However, there was little to no variation between the results between the monolingual and bilingual speakers.

“This tells us that, for the most part, the language we happen to learn to speak does not change the organization of the brain,” said Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology, in a university press release. “Semantic information is represented in the same place in the brain and the same pattern of intensities for everyone,” Just said. “Knowing this means that brain to brain or brain to computer interfaces can probably be the same for speakers of all languages.”

This study could potentially help improve automatic, algorithm based translations and second language instruction.

In addition to Just, others involved in the study were Carnegie Mellon University’s Ying Yang and Jing Wang, postdoctoral associates at the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging; Vladimir Cherkassky, a senior research programmer and systems manager in the psychology department; and the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil’s Cyntia Bailer.

This research regarding the brain’s interpretation of language was funded through the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).