language, consciousness and aging

Note: below is a question I asked a friend who is a neural scientist. I thought it would be good to share it here.

For a long time, I am trying to understand how language, consciousness, aging are connected. Maybe you can answer my puzzles or give me some suggested reading.

I am interested in understanding the relationship of language and consciousness. Knowledge of this will help understanding many things. For kids before age 12, for most of them, whatever they do, it is actually for the growth of language. They learn things around them, but it is actually for the development of language. And with the development of language the consciousness in their brain grows as well. As I have experienced when living in the states, there seems to be such feelings that something in my brain was growing whenever I learned a new expression. At that time, I was trying not to let other things interfere with this growth so it can grow continuously. After I came back to China, for at least one year, when I spoke Chinese, I still need to first think in English and then convert it to Chinese. When I was thinking, I thought in English. When I went back to where I went for college or where I grew up, it was a whole layers of past memory dug up, which had been buried deeply for a long time. So it seems that my learning of English and American culture formed its own layer. Once this layer gets stronger, it is not easy to break it. As foreigners, we usually speak a quite broken English, and it is easy to break it up. Whenever I spoke with my parents over the weekend, I found it difficult to pronounce English on Monday. (But maybe this doesn’t have to be so. And I am not sure if other foreigners have experienced the same thing.) There was once that when playing soccer with friends on Monday I yelled out Kongzhi (in Chinese it means control) the ball. I had two things mixed up.

So for foreigners living in the states, they have to perform adult functions and carry out adult responsibilities. Those are the social functions of the brain, which develop after the develop of language. For the foreigners what their brains need is to be proficient with the language first, e.g. have that basis of consciousness grown and form a layer of substrate, on top of which social functions can grow. The foreigners have their experiences of these social functions stored in their brain. But probably it is more strongly associated with the substrate of their mother tongue. The consciousness has to grow again on the new substrate in the new culture.

Social functions are also important for the health of the brain. Doctors said detainee of Guantanamo bay may suffer brain damage because of extreme isolation. National Geography’s special issue about Intelligence of animals points out that social interaction is responsible for the intelligence in animals.

OK, above has been a little messy. Let me sum up. Social functions are important for the health of human brain (more so than for animals). Social functions grow on the substrate of language. Learning of a language is actually growing the consciousness. And a language will form its own layer of consciousness.

What can be studied is probably to study how foreigners brain change as s/he learn the language. A span of 10 years of following (or at least 5 years) the subjects might be necessary. Or compare brains of bilinguals with those who only speak one language, and see what differ. Whether an old age makes the brain difficult to grow the consciousness related to language?

Do these observation and questions make sense? It is written in a hurry. I should need more time to refine and make it more logical. My questions might have been answered by scientists and I just don’t know. These are interesting things to me, and I think understanding them is very important.


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